19 September 2010
My grandmother, Jennie Waymoth, was a farm girl from Eastern Illinois. Born in 1902, she grew up milking cows on her father’s homestead in Sidell. When she left the farm sometime around 1925, headed for the bright lights of Chicago, she changed her name along the way to a more sophisticated “Jeanette”.
My grandfather, Louie Nicholson, was a southern emigre who left his birthplace in Mississippi in 1907 at the age of 12. His transformation from “country boy” to “urban dandy” elicited a change of spelling, from “Louie” to “Louis” and the addition of a middle name – “Bell” – which was borrowed from a family friend.
By the 1920′s, Louie was working on the Illinois Central Railroad, plying the route between Chicago and New Orleans. Jennie was a waitress in the train station restaurant.
In 1926, Louie and Jennie had the temerity to marry. It was a decision that was not very popular at the time. In America, the number of people who exercised that choice were statistically irrelevant.
On their wedding day, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. Its prohibition was most notably exemplified by the “Racial Integrity Act,” passed in 1924 by the state of Virginia. The act made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” In defense of statutes such as this, and the mores that made them expedient, the Ku Klux Klan was rampaging in the South, protecting the purity of white women from the savage lust of black men.
Ironically, the majority of people in Vermillion County (Sidell), were Quakers who originated in the South and left because of their distaste for slavery. Abraham Lincoln, “the Great Emancipator,” practiced law in the county seat of Danville for many years. Notwithstanding such a robust history of progressiveness, from the day Jennie and Louie married, Jennie’s family from thenceforth considered her dead. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.
Throughout my life, I have never quite known how to process this family history. I grew up in the same house with my grandparents. My mother looked more white than most white people and I entered this world with a fair complexion. My lack of coloration has been both a blessing and a curse.
The more I learn about my family history, the more conflicted I am about my grandparent’s relationship — what it all means and where this is all leading to.
In an ideal world, there would be no race. It is merely a political construct that keeps one group of people in power and another group of people cowed into submission — all based on the “color of one’s skin.”
Today, I wear my grandmother’s cameo around my neck. This little bauble, which I estimate to be at least 150 years old, was one of my grandmother’s cherished possessions. Her mother (Filura) had received it from her mother (Isabella) and passed it along to my grandmother (Jennie). She gave it to her daughter (my mother, Delores) when she was a teenager. My mother passed it on to me.
My cameo symbolizes a chain of unbroken genes, hanging on a chain of racial acrimony. For me, it is this paradox that must be addressed if we are ever to move forward to a truly egalitarian America that guarantees and protects the rights of all regardless of race, creed, color or sexual orientation.
1 September 2010
Tuscaloosa, Alabama is the home of one of the people I have been researching for many years– Dr. John Marrast. He owned the plantation in Lowndes County from which I believe my ancestors, Tom Leslie and Rhoda Reeves Leslie, emerged from slavery.
According to an official website: “The City of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County and the Black Warrior River which runs through the City of Tuscaloosa all take their name from the Choctaw Indian Chief “Tushka Lusa” (tushka meaning “warrior”, lusa meaning “black”). According to historical accounts, Chief Tuskaloosa was a very wise and respected leader and was of impressive physical stature standing nearly 7 feet tall.”
Dr. Marrast was definitely not as tall as Tushka Lusa. His passport application says he stood at “medium height.” However, his stature as one of the largest slaveholders in Lowndes County, Alabama is indisputable.
In 1850, Dr. Marrast owned 128 people at Lowndes County. They were surely cultivating cotton on his large plantation, spurred on by the whip of his overseer, J.B. May. He also enslaved several more people at Tuscaloosa, where he made his home and in Mobile, where he had family connections.
I already had a great deal of documentation about the very prosperous and renowned Dr. Marrast. However, this time, I was rewarded to find a deed book with proof of his appointment to the State Banking Commission and the will of his brother, William, who was, for many years, the postmaster of Tuscaloosa.
As I review this information, I am stricken by the great injustice that was inflicted upon my ancestors as well as the Native American tribes to whom Tuscaloosa (and indeed, all of America) once belonged. The indigenous people who owned the land were brutally displaced and eradicated. The people who did the most daunting work of taming the “new frontier” — the slaves — got nothing for their toil. Their owners, John and his brother (and thousands of others), got cushy jobs with important titles and, surely, some attractive remuneration.
Some days, I just don’t know where in my heart to put all this learning. I am praying that I can transform my pain and anger into something positive for the future. Surely, the essence of healing is discerning how to empower our future by honoring our past.
31 August 2010
Every year when I do my genealogy trek to the Southland, I am reminded of the rife injustices about which I have enormously conflicting emotions. Here is yet another issue that has been top of mind this week.
My paternal grandfather had seven siblings. My maternal grandfather had five. There are at least two dozen additional grand aunts and uncles emanating from my grandmothers. Proceeding forward to me, this generation gave birth to literally hundreds of people whom I can identify as blood relatives.
However, going back in time — back to a past generation — back to my GREAT grandparents — it is a shock to find that NONE of them appear to have brothers and sisters.
Why is that? Because they were slaves and slaves were not generally documented in human records. Their personal details and family relationships were obliterated by omission.
Before 1870, my great grandparents are listed on census forms with references only to their quantity, age, gender and color — maybe.
Although I can sometimes find the name of a mother (generally on a death certificate if the person died after 1900), I can’t find the name of a father, the deceased person’s siblings nor any children they might have had other than the one who produced me. Even on death certificates, the mothers frequently have no surnames. In death records, they are “Harriett Unknown” (along with “unknown” place of birth). Fathers are straight ahead “unknown” (no given name, surname or place of birth).
In plantation records, if you are lucky enough to find them, enslaved people will be noted variously as “Rhody’s boy,” “Old Mary” or “Little Tom.” Fathers again are non-existent. Virtually all of them, black or white, are unnamed, unknown and unclaimed.
Even without names — or perhaps the reason why there are no names — is because enslaved people had such great economic value that Thomas Jefferson “urged slavery as an investment strategy…. There is icy clarity in his instructions to an overseer not to overwork pregnant women: ‘I consider a [slave] woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital.’”
I long to know where the descendants of all those “financial dividends” are in 2010?
There are surely people walking around in this world today who probably share some of my genes. Their great grandparents could have been the siblings of my great grandparents. But it is very unlikely that any of us will ever know one another or even surmise our relationship. Public records mitigate against our ever finding and reaching out to one another.
White people can tell you who in their family came over on the Mayflower. They can show you on paper when their ancestors got their first tract of land along with its exact dimensions. They can document marriages all the way back to the 1600s — even before there was an America — and before slavery was the economic engine of its growth.
As I proceed with my genealogical research, it is ironic that digging up the past has proven to be a most therapeutic exercise. Believing as I do that spirits never die, I am convinced that my ancestors are assuaged in knowing that they are not forgotten — even if I don’t know exactly who they are. That is how I attempt to transform my pain into productive use.
29 August 2010
Every year for the last 10 years, the good people of Burkville, Alabama have gathered for an annual celebration of “the people’s vegetable.”
Burkville is a very small community in Lowndes County. It is just down the road from Montgomery, on the way to the county seat at Hayneville. The festival, which attracts hundreds of people on the last weekend in August, is very much like a big house party where neighbors gather to “chew the fat.” There is food, music, mule wagon rides for the children and a wonderful collection of art in Annie Mae’s Place. Every possible permutation of okra is available, from gumbo pots to pickled delicacies.
I was supposed to do a genealogy workshop, but that didn’t work out. I couldn’t compete with the soulful blues being belted out by Sonny Boy King!
By way of history, gumbo is the African name for what we call okra. It was brought to the North American continent by slave ships. Originating in what is now Ethiopia, the word is thought to derive from “quillobo,” which is the indigenous name for the okra plant in central Africa. The words “Gumbo” and “Callaloo” are often used to describe something that is mixed up. This is, no doubt, how the dish so many of us love got it’s name.
In case you didn’t know, okra has many healthful attributes.
It lowers bad cholesterol and keeps the intestinal track clean, which reduces the risks of heart disease and colorectal cancer.
For those of you who turn up your nose at okra’s sliminess, I have a proven method for eliminating it. Just trim the okra above the line between the cap and the pod then soak it in lemon juice before cooking.
There are many other communities that have okra festivals, including Mobile, New Orleans and Birmingham. But the fun for me is in Burkville, which is nearest to my ancestral roots.
For more information on the festival, go to http://www.okrafestival.org/home.html and start planning your trip for next year!
26 August 2010
Just got back from the Alabama Department of Archives and History. I have been visiting there for many years and always leave with a treasure trove of new information. More on that later.
Right now, I want to recall visions of the past…
I vividly remember finding and viewing my very first slave schedule, one that applied specifically to an ancestor I was looking for. This happened many years ago, but it is still a profoundly evocative memory.
There I was, sitting in front of a microfilm reader at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. A library staff member was standing behind me, helping me pull up the document, poised to explain how to read it.
Suddenly, there it was. Exactly what I was looking for. Right in front of me in black and white. Absolute proof of one person owning another — a stranger owning a possible member of my family.
The slave schedule I was viewing applied to James E. Leslie, a 27 year old blacksmith, born in North Carolina. In 1850, he was a resident of Lowndes County with his wife, Elizabeth, and their newborn baby, Robert. His slave was a 30 year old Black woman of indeterminate name and description.
To say that I was shocked and appalled would be an understatement. Tears filled my eyes and I started trembling. I could barely contain myself.
The white woman sitting at the reader beside me erupted almost simultaneously with a shout of joy because she had found someone she was looking for. She said something like “There he is! My grandfather!” announcing her ancestor’s name with obvious pride.
I wanted to lean over and smack the crap out of her.
The library aide held me by my shoulders and comforted me. “There, there, ” he said. “It’s OK. Many people have that reaction the first time they see the evidence. Calm down. It’s OK.”
The shocking part was the realization that the evidence IS there. That it IS possible to find our ancestors. That records WERE kept.
The appalling part was that, for slaves, there are NO NAMES.
I have seen the bloodlines of cows and dogs kept more meticulously than this. The American Kennel Club keeps the names of dam and sire, place of birth, a genetically documented provenance — providing these as indisputable proofs when one purchases a purebred dog. Cattle breeders keep records on stud semen and can tell you to this day which ancestral bulls sired offspring in contemporary herds.
Black people — my people — are mere cross hatches. No names. No places of birth. No family relationships.
Each person is listed as “1″ — the numeral being a symbol of their solitary essence. The vestige of physical description is limited to “black” or “mulatto.” Impediments to economic value are indicated in a column for noting “deaf, dumb, blind, insane or idiotic.” That’s it. That’s all I am destined to know.
Was James Leslie the father of my GGrandfather, Tom Leslie? Was James’ female slave Tom’s mother? Or, maybe James was doing some blacksmithing at the neighboring Marrast plantation and spent some “quality” time with Tom’s mother, Harriett Morass?
Somehow, I think these records were obscured on purpose so that people like me would NEVER be able to connect the dots. Should we be able to do so, we might lay righteous blame on the perpetrators of America’s greatest shame. How else can I explain the meticulous absence of personal details for the human beings who contributed so enormously to the foundations of the American economy?
Driven by a need to know whose blood is flowing through my veins, I want to know exactly who that 3o year old black female was!
24 August 2010
I succeeded in finding the grave of James E. Leslie, the man I believe sired my great-grandfather, Tom Leslie.
Born in 1823 in North Carolina, James migrated sometime before 1850 to Lowndes County, Alabama. He operated a blacksmith shop in Hayneville and lived about 17 miles from town in the Braggs community. In 1875, he died.
The Leslie family plot is in the New Bethel cemetery on County Road 7. James’ wife, Elizabeth Farley Leslie, is there along with three of their children: Elizabeth, William and Jane. His first wife, Martha Ann Betterton, whom James married in 1848 when she was 12 years old, is no where to be found. And, unfortunately, the gravestone that covers James is overturned and so embedded in the ground, I couldn’t turn it over to read it.
Throughout the day, I tried to put myself in the mindset of a person living in 1850. Gazing upon the verdant fields of Lowndes County, it is easy to fantasize on the times. In my mind’s eye, I can see the cotton fields. I reconstruct a modest little house of white clapboard where the Leslie’s live. James is riding his horse into Hayneville, where he lives and works during the week. Elizabeth is at home, minding the children.
In the midst of all this bucolic beauty, I wonder where my relatives are? Is Tom picking cotton?
The 1850 Federal census says James was in possession of a 30 year old female slave. Was that Tom’s mother? By 1860, James was no longer a slaveholder. Did he sell her… and their son?
Clearly, there are many more mysteries to explore.
21 August 2010
The signs throughout the countryside tell you to “Keep Alabama The Beautiful” and, indeed, Alabama is that … one beautiful state. It’s natural bounty includes lush green rolling hills and pastures; a multitude of lakes and rivers; healthy livestock – cows, sheep and horses — grazing the land. Even though the corn fields this year are burnt from heat and drought, there is an abundance of budding cotton.
I spent the day touring the back roads of Lowndes County, the birthplace of my great-grandfather, Tom Leslie. According to the records I have, Tom was born in this place sometime around 1850. My father told me he left slavery with Rhoda Reeves, who later became his wife and the mother of his children, which included my grandfather, Robert Leslie. Tom died in 1939 in Montgomery, which is about 20 miles from Hayneville, the county seat.
As I drove through the town square in Hayneville, I saw a weathered old man sitting under a canopy. His pick-up truck was parked nearby, loaded with big bags of sweet potatoes. He was selling but the bags were too big for me to buy and put to good use (sigh). Further on, my nose was tantalized by the pungent smell of watermelon permeating the air.
On a lark, I stopped for lunch as soon as I noticed the ”Deerwoods BBQ” restaurant, just off the square. Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised to find an African American man at the counter, obviously the owner. He presided over a soulfood buffet that whetted my appetite beyond control. His pleasant repartee made me feel right at home.
I sat down to enjoy a plate of fried chicken wings, butter beans cooked with okra over fluffy white rice; a side of candied sweet potatoes and cornbread muffins. I washed it all down with a big glass of iced sweet tea. As I glanced around the dining room, I couldn’t help but appreciate the sign that read “Bless All Who Enter,” feeling supremely blessed to have found such a tasty repast in such a lovely place so rife with familial ties and historical significance.
19 August 2010
This is Nemo. He is my road dog.
As I pack up the car and prepare to get on the the road for the first leg of my genealogy adventure, Nemo senses the excitement in the air. He’s ready to roll — as am I.
First stop is Clarksville Tennessee where we will overnight with fellow genealogy buff, Lawson Mabry. The Mabry family I am visiting are distantly related to my Leslie ancestors. They provided numerous historical documents that have contributed greatly to my work.
It’s a six hour drive to Clarksville. That’s almost halfway to my final destination in Alabama.
I expect that Nemo will be, as he always is, patient and calm. He will recline in his cushy bed, strategically positioned on the passenger seat. We will stop every couple of hours to hydrate and potty. Hopefully, I won’t bore him with my random chatter
18 August 2010
I am getting ready to hit the road tomorrow for my annual genealogy adventure. I am headed to previously unvisited counties in Alabama and (if my strength holds out) Mississippi. Between now and Labor Day, I expect to drive about 2500 miles.
There is one side of my family that I feel I have been neglecting lately — the paternal LESLIE clan. So I shall be focusing on them this year. One of my goals is locating the cemetery in which I believe the progenitor of my Leslie surname rests. That would be James E. Leslie, who is buried in New Bethel Cemetery in Lowndes County.
James was the local blacksmith circa 1850 when my GGrandfather was born. In the 1850 census, he’s listed with one female slave. Can’t read whether her age is 50 or 30. I’m betting 30 and that she might be my GGrandmother. There was no housing listed for her on the slave schedule, so she would have been in the house with the 27 year old bachelor James.
Last year, my efforts were rewarded with finding a probate document in the Dallas County courthouse that appears to list my great grandfather (“”boy Tom”) and his mother (“woman Harriett”) as part of the estate inventory associated with Thomas Reeves. Tom was valued at $1000, Harriett at $400.
Every time I see one of these references, I am reminded of just how strong our ancestors were. If not for them, I could not be.
And so, I’m off to seek the wizard… the yellow brick road will lead me to Lowndes County, Alabama. I will click the heels of my ruby red shoes together if I get in trouble
26 June 2010
In my generation, there are only three family members who share the surname Leslie. In the next generation, there is but one. After that, our family name will be relegated to the archives of history.
We contemporary three are Francine, Frank and Sharon. Collectively, our generation represents the survivors of painful, historical roots in Alabama. Our fathers were born there. As children, they were rescued from there and never looked back.
Francine and Frank are the children of my uncle Frank. His brother, Arthur, was my father. Frank had two children. Arthur had one. Their older brother, “Little Bob,” had none.
Our next generation is Francita — young Frank’s daughter. Although she is now a mother, she has chosen to retain the family name. Her son bears the name of his father.
It is a good thing that Francita continues to identify herself as a Leslie because her father is not able to have any more children. Nor are we — his sister and sister/cousin — because of our ages.
Francine’s two children are named for their father. My one son is named for the man who rescued him from being a fatherless child.
The end result, and the point of this rumination, is that Francita is the last of our line. She is the sole surviving person who will bear our family name. After her, the genetic manifestation of our Leslie name will expire.
That leads me to wonder: What happens when your family name is no longer extant?
As a genealogist, I am doing my best to record the fact that we LIVED — somewhere, somehow. In the annals of history, I wish for it to be known that we were here. We made our mark. I want us — our Leslie name — to be known and revered.
It is my hope that future generations will remember that our great grandfather, Tom Leslie, and his wife, Rhoda Reeves Leslie, came out of SLAVERY. In their circumscribed circumstances, they gave birth to eight children, who gave birth to four children, who gave birth to six children, who gave birth to four. Even though our name will die, our bloodline will continue.
I pray that future generations who share our patrimony will continue our memory so that the fact that we once lived never dies.