BACK ROADS

2 September 2014

Bettie WARFE/GAVIN

Every year, finances permitting, I head South for genealogical research. I pack up my Jeep with clothes, food, and emergency supplies. My handy GPS leads the way. It knows the back roads far better than I.

In the cache stored in the boot, I have a battery charger, folding shovel, collapsible bucket, and knee-high fireman’s boots. In the glove box, I store a hunter’s knife and ID that shows I own my vehicle and the contents therein. You never know what exigencies might exist on the road less traveled!

Rather than driving interstate highways, I stick to two-lane roads so I can take in the scenery and get a picture of what life might have been like in the communities in which my ancestors lived more than a hundred years before I was born.

This year, I was able to spend two weeks exploring the back roads of ancestral home places in rural Mississippi and Alabama. I hit courthouses and communities in Macon, Mississippi and Lowndes County, Alabama, with many detours along the way. It’s not like I haven’t been to these places before, but I am forever aware that there is always more to see… and feel…. and appreciate. This time, I registered more than 3,000 miles in my quest.

Along the way, there are few stop lights or petrol stations. The landscape is dominated by expansive fields of cotton and corn, interspersed with grazing cows. If my Jeep were to break down, who knows what the consequences might be? An out-of-the-blue summer storm rocked my car to the hinges. I wasn’t sure whether to abandon ship or keep on truckin’.

The entire scene is redolent of a life that an urban woman like me finds hard to comprehend. There are countless churches and, every now and then, I pass a sign reminding me that Jesus is love and hell is a just reward.

I returned from my adventure this year with a box of copies… documents that prove my heritage as a “daughter of slavery” – part of the subtitle of the book I wrote about healing from the egregious legacy from which 90 percent of African Americans descend.

As I culled documents in the Macon courthouse and at the archives in Jackson, my heart was heavy. It’s not like I have not been to these places before, it is just that, every time, I find something new. And, every time, it rends my heart to realize the exigencies of the life my ancestors lived.

I found a MS Supreme Court case where my ancestress, Bettie WARFE/GAVIN, was accused of operating a “bawdy house” and sentenced to jail. There was another case that disputed the land of Seborn GAVIN, who bought, after Emancipation, the plantation upon which he was enslaved by his very own father.

In one testimony (before the Mississippi Supreme Court), Bettie WARFE/GAVIN admitted that she didn’t even know how old she was:

Q         About how old are you Aunt Bettie?

A         I don’t know sir, how old I am. I was raised up by a white lady and was sold over here from Virginia. I don’t know how old I am, too old to be here.

She also explained:

Q         You were convicted of getting children by Bob Gavin?

A         Yes sir; he was my master. He bought me from his uncle and I couldn’t help it.

Q         Have you ever been convicted of any unlawful cohabitation?

A         I was convicted by getting children by my master.

My takeaway from  this  testimony, and many other documents I found, is that slavery was such an incredibly abominable institution, embraced by an entire nation, it astounds my mind. I am afraid of the possibility that we may never succeed in healing from its effects.

With these observations in mind, is it any wonder that young black boys like Trayvon Martin and  Michael Brown lay dead, victims of a “system” that views “children” like me as less than human?

And Still I Rise

19 December 2013

GUEST BLOG by Patricia Moncure Thomas

Women - Historical Faces

African American women have left an indelible imprint on America through centuries of arduous struggles to achieve self-determination, equality, and freedom from racial, class, and sexual exploitation — making a way out of no way. They have taken a stand for human beings regardless of color, culture, religion or gender, exhibiting without doubt that black women are neither morally or intellectually inferior. Their struggle continues today.

The African American woman was subjected to some of the most inhumane conditions man has ever known; conditions designed to strip all remnants of her African heritage and to reduce her to a status of subhuman. She became chattel property, not allowed to speak her native language, practice her native religion, nor legally marry or rear her children without interruption. White slave masters sought to reduce her to a sexual object and the breeder of their illegitimate children; children not treated as the masters’ sons and daughters, but as pieces of property.

The strong maternal instinct of black women survived the painful and repeated ripping away of children from their bosoms; to which Sojourner Truth gave eloquent voice: “I have borne 13 children and seen most of them sold into slavery and when I cried out with my mother grief, none but Jesus helped me.”

Slavery pressed the African American woman into servitude, but did not press today’s beautiful African American sisters into giving up. Rather, their struggles laid the foundation for true liberation. Out of the circumstances that forced our foremothers to work long hours as field hands, nursemaids, cooks, seamstresses, washerwomen, gardeners, nannies; African American women emerged as roles model of strength and compassion. Despite cruel treatment designed to break their spirit, black women remained strong, versatile, tireless mothers and laborers who forged their own identity, set their own pace, and established a precedence of leadership for women all over the world.

While a majority of the information in our history books speaks only to the slave era, there is so much more to the history of black women. They were writers, poets, nurses, ministers, abolitionists, soldiers, pioneers, builders, farmers — and the list goes on. All were not slaves; many were free. Although still treated as less than human,  African American women continued their sojourn for equality after slavery ended knowing that the battle was not over. And, to date, it is still not over.

Today we gladly learn more and more about the historical contributions of black women — their creativeness, resourcefulness, and past struggles. We celebrate their endurance and achievements that blazed a pathway for future generations.

In that awareness, I urge all to listen to the voices of our strong African American sisters. Listen to their voices rising in celebration of all black women.  Hear them in the spirit of poet Maya Angelou’s words: And Still I Rise… And Still I Rise.

Patricia Moncure ThomasPatricia Moncure Thomas is an educator and family historian who lives in Washington state. She has spent many years delving into the history of the Moncure family, which is related to two of America’s founding fathers — George Washington and George Mason. The first ever meeting of her black and white family in Fredericksburg, Virginia was featured in an Associated Press article and she wrote Moncure Place: Connecting Family & Friends. Ms.Thomas is a member of Coming to the Table, a group that focuses on healing from the legacy of slavery. Her family website is http://www.moncure.mysite.com/  

The Fear of No Return

15 November 2013

GUEST BLOG by Harold Lee Rush

 
Slave - Chains

 

When I read Sharon’s blog on 12 Years a Slave, it brought forth a rush of emotion that forced me to consider where I stand as a Black man today… in 2013…. When America is supposed to be a more enlightened and just society. My thoughts led me to a place where I can easily comprehend the path we have traveled; one that perpetually puts me in my “place” as a “boy” instead of a “man” – as “chained” rather than “free.”

Given those parameters, I have a special take on the movie (a depiction of the past) that (in current reality) could easily be ME. Solomon Northup, a “free man” became enslaved and endured soul wrenching experiences that left him traumatized.

It strikes me to my soul that the very same experience could easily happen to me – TODAY.

As with Northup, I could be innocently walking down the street, be picked up and cast into a system where my name is taken, I am held in chains, shipped far from home, forced to work, and never know when I might again be free. This could  happen (and often does).

I hope you will recognize by now that I’m speaking of the American criminal “just-us” system – one which relentlessly inflicts the onus of involuntary servitude – meted out to many Black men (especially) who may be “pronounced guilty” — based upon a conviction that bears little (if any) proof.

Just as Black men (and some women) were kidnapped and sold into slavery during Solomon Northrup’s time, Black people continue to experience a frighteningly similar fate, under a process that is euphemistically “colored” with the rule of law.

Modern day law enforcement protocol has its roots in the slave catchers and bounty hunters of the past who would swoop into town and grab any Black man moving. If you could not prove you were a free man, you were doomed. How did one prove they were free? As we saw in the film, Solomon Northup was stripped of his clothing and personal belongings. How in the world could he, when demanded, produce “papers” to prove his status? Even if he did, I can easily see the jailer tearing them to shreds.

Today, police can stop any and every one and inquire about their status. Mostly, they demand “Do you have any wants or warrants.” (Yes, I KNOW the procedure and the de rigueur stance of submission.) They will then run your name through “the system.”  If something pops up on their screen, you WILL be taken into custody. And that easily becomes an unbelievable journey into hell. It has happened to me and far too many other Black people – EVERY DAY.

Having a driver’s license or state ID, a social security card or even a passport means nothing in a police stop. There are no “papers” immediately at hand to certify that you are not wanted. It is in the hands of the slave catcher/police to determine if you are “clean” (read “free”).

I am Solomon Northup every day of my life. Every time I walk out my door, there is the possibility of not coming home. Just the simple act of going to see this incredibly real movie summons my fear of no return.

HAROLD LEE RUSH started tracing his family tree roughly 15 years ago. He was able to trace his mother’s side back four generations, but his father’s side only two. “When I first became aware of Sharon’s work and site, I discovered that I needed to redo my approach and have found tremendous help as well as encouragement from Our Black Ancestry. I have now been able to enlist the assistance of family who weren’t interested before. I have also had a DNA analysis done – found that I’m 72% African…very pleased with that!”

Paw Paw’s Skillet

17 September 2013

Louis Bell NICHOLSON 1895 MS > 1974 Chicago

Louis Bell NICHOLSON
1895 Cliftonville (Noxubee) MS > 1974 Chicago (Cook) IL

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the house of my mother’s father, Louis Nicholson.

The “house” — a three-flat building of seven room apartments (plus two “off the record” units in the basement) — was a gift from a former girlfriend, Sarah Pointer Lemon, whom he and my grandmother cared for until the end of her life in 1963. When Louis died in 1974, the building was the only tangible thing he left for his four children to inherit. It remained the family homestead until 2003, when it was sadly relinquished as the consequence of a tax default.

Louis was born in Cliftonville, Mississippi (a town which no longer exists) in 1895. He spent his early years in West Point, Mississippi, where his father, Wash Nicholson, died of yellow jaundice in 1907.

Sometime around 1910, Louis, his mother Ella, and his five siblings moved on. They sojourned in Memphis, Tennessee (where his grandmother, Bettie WARFE/GAVIN, was buried in 1917). They later made their way to Chicago, surely financed by the bounty Louis and his brothers, Walter and Albert, generated from their “good jobs” on Illinois Central trains. Ella remarried a Jamaican immigrant, William REED, who was shot dead by her nephew in 1924 because he complained about the loud music the young man sacrilegeously played on “the Lord’s day.”

In 1926, Louis married a white woman from Sidell, Illinois (Jennie Waymoth), whom he met in the train station restaurant at 12th Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago. She was a waitress. He was a cook. Together, they had four children — all of them (and their increase) born in Chicago. At one time or another, every one of his descendants (including me) lived at the family homestead created from the fortuitous gift of 4840 South Parkway (formerly Grand Boulevard, then South Parkway, and, since 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive). 

As a child, I had no idea of my grandfather’s past. He was just the strong, silent man who ruled our roost (with a gentle hand). Our entire family called him “Paw Paw” and we all loved him DEARLY.

Iron Skillet

One BIG thing I remember about Paw Paw is the little iron skillet in which he often cooked — mostly eggs. Although my grandmother made most of the meals, Paw Paw made the “magic” — using that little black skilled which is forever etched into my memory. In my mind’s eye, I can vividly recall watching him heat the skillet over the open flame of our gas stove. Gently cracking an egg or two (depending on the time of the month) into a small amount of oil, he would proceed to fry on high heat. Sometimes, the flames would jump up, eliciting great joy from the small child witness (me) for whom cooking was a yet to be achieved accomplishment. He would mock the fire with a smile on his face, lift the skillet in the air to quell the flames and finish his task with relish — sliding a perfectly asymmetrical orb onto his small plate as an accompaniment to two fat slices of unbuttered super soft Silvercup white bread.

Paw Paw’s admonition about food was that you should take just what you needed from the pot. If still hungry after your first serving, you could always go back for more. Therein, I suppose, is the unexpurgated wisdom of cooking in a tiny skillet and eating from the salad sized plate from which his meals (whether he cooked them or not) were eaten.

Today, that highly seasoned little black skillet is one of the few remaining references to the life of a man who was greatly loved.

I hope Paw Paw is watching as I write this so he can enjoy a good laugh!

Musings on Malevolence

15 September 2013

Tom & Rhoda LESLIE Enslaved at Lowndes County, AL

Tom & Rhoda LESLIE
Enslaved at Lowndes County, AL

Delving into the past is not for the faint hearted… especially when your ancestors were enslaved.

I read the stories of the “grand men and women who made America great” and cringe at the thought of how their riches and acclaim were “achieved’ by crushing the backs and spirits of “others” = MY PEOPLE…. stalked and captured in Africa and transported to America in the holds of slave ships, destined for a life of nothing — other than unrelenting work, service to a “master” and erasure of their identity… transformed into people of NO nation, NO history and diminished prospects ever after.

There are days when I feel SO DEPRESSED upon the discovery of yet another abominable truth, the facts of which feed my fury about the unfathomably unjust past.The more I learn, the more compelling becomes my desire to know even MORE… fueling the frenzy of my discontent. In my more enlightened state — I yearn to integrate what I learn into making myself a better person — thus ascribing the overflow of pain into something positive.

On my worst days, I hear the voice of Bettie Warfe (my maternal great great grandmother), who bore 17 children with the nephew of her master. Surely these children whose genes I share could not have been born of “love” in the context of times in which NO woman (especially an enslaved black “consort”) could ever say “NO.” 

My heart recoils at the story of Rhody Reeves Leslie (my paternal great grandmother) who cries out as an infant, slung against a wall by the enraged wife of her white master/father and then banished/sold with her mother to a fate unknown.

My mind’s eye sees Tom Leslie (my paternal great grandfather) face down a sheriff in Montgomery, Alabama with his shotgun — welcoming death rather than sacrifice his grandchildren (my father) to the whims of white supremacy.

I cringe at the thought of Owen Gavin (my great uncle) witnessing his daughter violated by “Knight riders” determined to drive his family from the small plot of land he managed to occupy after fleeing Mississippi to Oklahoma in the hope of a better life.

I see my grandfather, Louie Nicholson, terrified to his core as his uncle was lynched in Noxubee County, Mississippi for no apparent reason other than the fact of his blackness.

I hurt with the knowledge of my mother’s distress as she was beaten and gang raped by men who knew they would not face prosecution because she was black as night but not at sight.

As the iconic Mississippi writer William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

It is this past  that continues to haunt a present in which Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin… and countless others victims of the American myth… continue to suffer the detritus of ignorance and misguided delusions.

LAWD… help me transform my trauma into triumph!!!

Summer

18 June 2013

I will soon enjoy the privilege of continuing the long established tradition in the African American community of grandmothers caring for their “increase” during the summer months when school is not in session.

My grandchildren, Julian and Violet (respectively 3 and 5 years old), will be delivered by their parents into my care the day after Independence Day in July and remain in “my country” until Labor Day in September. The only significant difference in time honored tradition will be that my grandchildren will spend their summer in “The North” instead of in the opposite direction of the children I knew growing up.

Car - 1958 Buick.bmpI vividly recall classmates saying “goodbye” as soon as school closed in Chicago — in anticipation of their parents packing up cars and heading South to destinations in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Mississippi. I envied their adventure. The parents departed with children in the back seat (no seatbelts) in late June and returned to the oppressive Chicago heat in September with fresh produce in the boot. I remained in Chicago, idling away my time with cousins who endured a similar fate — that of being “left behind.” In late August, my friends would return in cars laden with collard greens, okra and onions.

My parents never allowed me to travel South. I didn’t even know we had relatives there until I was a married adult. My mother told me Emmett Till (a black boy tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 — when I was four years old) was the reason. My father never explained, other than saying ominously “I left. I never went back.” My grandfather, who wasn’t a big talker, never said anything at all. I eventually surmised that “The South” was a bad place with memories best left unquestioned. 

Mama DoraIn spite of these unresolved notations, I recall making a similar summer journey — from my mother in Chicago to my father’s mother in Rockford. When school let out in June, my mother would pack up my things and take me to the Illinois Central train station at 12th Street and Michigan Avenue. She would hug me tightly and hand me off  to a conductor, ensuring my safe passage with a “tip” in the hand. After a two hour ride, I would arrive in Rockford, where Mama Dora awaited on the platform to receive me. Emplacing me and my bag in her shiny Cadillac, she would drive us home to Christina Street. In following days, we would go to Bergner’s department store to buy new clothes. Her husband, Russell, would take me to Camay’s music store for Brook Benton records (my grandmother loved “Kiddeo”), which were played on a monaural music system ensconced in a wood cabinet that dominated the living room. A neighbor girl, Belinda (who had six fingers) would comb my unruly hair everyday in return for a one dollar a week “salary.” Etta, another neighbor’s child, would keep me company during the long days while Mama Dora was at work as a domestic in the household of a rich family I hated because they took her away from me.

DSCF0123

In preparation for my own “grandmotherhood” I last month bought and assembled a swing set so my kids can experience the joy of “swinging” in their own 1-1/2 acre back yard in “Shamaland.” We will pick beans, greens and tomatoes, eat homemade frozen fruit pops, preserved jam and pound cake; watch movies and read books at bedtime. Julian will go to summer camp where he will learn how to swim. Violet will attend daycare at the “Land of the Little People” so  I have time to write. In September, I will return two tired, sun kissed and happy (I hope) children to their parents — sad to see them go but happy to have my solitary life back. 

It sometiimes seems that times were so simple in the past. But I know that is just an idealistic point of view in a world that has become far too complex for my appreciation. I tend to long for times when children were children, adults had all the answers, and summer was little more than a pleasant breeze against your face as you ate lunch under a weeping willow tree in the backyard, explored the unattended mysteries of Blackhawk Park, absorbed the tantalizing smells of dinner cooking on slow heat while you waited for Mama Dora to come home or stood naked as your bath was drawn, knowing she would embrace you in a fluffy towel and nurse the wounds of the day with turpentine before kissing you good night.

RIP (not)

16 June 2013

James E. Leslie Gravestone

James E. Leslie Gravestone

Last year, I connected with the white descendant of a man I believed fathered my black great grandfather. We met in cyberspace when Neil LESLIE found the photo I posted of his ancestor’s gravestone on a genealogy website. 

When I met Neil, I was ecstatic. After years of research, I hoped I would finally fulfill the longing that has haunted me for 30+ years. Over many months, Neil and I developed a lively online relationship during which I met his siblings and collaborated on research techniques to track our presumed shared ancestor. 

My genealogical target was James E. LESLIE (1823-1875) — a blacksmith from Iredell, North Carolina who migrated to Lowndes County, Alabama in the 1840s and owned a blacksmith shop on the Hayneville town square. My research had narrowed James LESLIE down to the right man in the right place at the right time with the right occupation + the right surname. He was a member of the same Baptist church as the man whom I surmised (based on estate records) owned my ancestor, Tom LESLIE, and his mother Harriett MORASS — plus, maybe, his wife Rhoda REEVES and her mother Easter REEVES. The cherry on  top was the fact that Tom was only one of two black people in multiple Lowndes County censuses with the LESLIE surname.

In the end, this accumulation of logic was just too good to be true.

A couple of months ago, Neil agreed to take a DNA test to compare against the results for my first cousin, Frank LESLIE, the only living direct male in my LESLIE line. Both did 67 marker tests on FamilyTreeDNA.

When the results came back, Frank was one point off on each of 12 markers against 31 allelles. (I could almost hear Neil breathing a big sigh of relief when it took him off the hook for something he felt pretty bad about.)

Neil said:

“Gee, I’m not sure what to say right now. I know this must be a terrible disappointment for you.  I am  disappointed too. I was expecting that the DNA tests would confirm your theories and our relationship — but I have to be honest and say that I’m also relieved. I’m relieved that it appears my great-great grandfather wasn’t so much of a scoundrel that he fathered a child with a woman he enslaved and then denied paternity. I don’t know—you may think he’s still a scoundrel because he enslaved other human beings and fought for a government that defended that enslavement.”

I responded:

“Yes, I still think James — and most other white people (especially men) of the time were greedy, misguided and immoral to (1) wipe out the indigenous population, (2) enslave people to build their stolen country and (3) create the myth of white superiority.”

We concluded our discussion with this thought from Neil:

“I suppose we all want to believe that all of our ancestors were fine and noble people—just like we are! The truth, of course, is a lot more complex. As individuals, we have elements of the saint, the sinner, and the scoundrel within us, and our families do too. One thing I have often thought about since I began  this process of finding out about my family is the idea that we are more than our genetics. If it comes to light that one of my ancestors did some morally questionable or even terrible things, I do not have to do the same thing. I can choose to do something different and something better. if I face up to the ugly parts of my family’s history honestly, maybe I can  help future generations of Leslies avoid making the same mistakes.”

I had to agree and opined:

YES, we are more than our genetics and we do have the ability to change the course of the future by being responsible people who adhere to high moral principles and work actively to improve society.”

Tom LESLIE always told his children he was “Portuguese and Indian” — and, in the final analysis, there is no doubt that his father was WHITE … the DNA trail shows 96% Scottish. His wife, Rhoda REEVES LESLIE also had a white father, as did ancestors on my maternal side. But WHO was Tom’s father? Why did he choose LESLIE as his surname?

Tom and Rhoda Leslie

Tom and Rhoda Leslie

I thought of the possibility that maybe it was Rhoda who was the child of James LESLIE. He was listed on the 1850 slave schedule with one female slave (age 30) and in 1855 with three slaves (no ages). My family story says the wife of Rhoda’s father was so incensed by her very being that she tried to kill the child by throwing her against a wall, giving her a concussion.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a direct line female to test in furtherance of this hypothesis. And, in any case, my meanderings amount to nothing more than fanciful guessing. All we have as African American slave descendants are discriminate ticks on census schedules that obscure and corrupt our origins (most especially our patrimony). For most of us, the facts will never be proven. In general, all white man had access at will to all enslaved women. The surviving dearth of records uphold the subterfuge.

It is beyond disappointing to wash 30 years of research down the drain. I am trying hard to digest the disappointment and not let it lead me back to the extreme anger I feel over historic white malfeasance and being thrust back into the netherworld of NEVER being able to KNOW my family origins.

A luta coninua.

Ashes to Ashes

3 June 2013

DSCF0182

As a genealogist, I tend to focus on researching/identifying ancestors who dwell in the deep, dark recesses of history — long before I was born. I attribute that inclination to a primeval calling to discover the earliest origins of who I am. As an African American, my ancestral roots lay in slavery; a research path shrouded in mystery.

But recently (probably in response to my mother’s birthday (May 28), I started thinking about contemporary ancestors = family members who lived and died within my own lifetime.

I am fortunate to not have experienced many deaths of immediate family members during the time in which I have lived (which is beginning to be a long time indeed). As I calculate the demise of my loved ones, I realize their deaths have been spaced over long periods of time. In my 60+ years, only seven really close family members have departed this world. (That number doesn’t include aunts, uncles and cousins, only the closest of close — the people who bore and raised me.) The result averages out to one loss per seven years, a period of time that should allow room for healing from profound grief that, no matter how many years pass, never goes away.

The first one to go was my paternal great grandmother; the woman who first inspired my interest in genealogy. Her name was Rhoda Reeves LESLIE (1850-1954). Born into slavery, she died at age of 104 when I was three years old. I can only remember seeing her but not talking to her. I knew nothing about her history until I was an adult and my father (after much resistance) finally told me some of her story, the essence of which propelled me on a genealogical journey that continues to this day.

Nine years later, in 1963, I lost my mother’s mother — Jeanette Waymoth NICHOLSON (1902-1963). Maw Maw dropped dead (at age 60) right before my 12 year old eyes. After drinking a refreshing glass of tap water from the sink in front of a kitchen window, she remarked “What a lovely day” and dropped to  the floor, dead of a massive heart attack. After my mother and aunt carried her to a nearby bed, we all heard her last gasp of breath, which made us think she was still with us. She was not.

A decade on (1973) my father’s father, Robert LESLIE (1893-1973) died at age 79. I never knew him well because my mother kept me away from my father’s people. Yet, when I attended Mr. Gentleman’s funeral, I cried inconsolably for the man I didn’t know, bruised to the core because I wasn’t even mentioned in his obituary with his other grandchildren.

The next year (1974), my mother’s father, Louis Bell NICHOLSON (1895-1974) died of old age at age 80. His heart just STOPPED. The rock of my existence, I remember changing Paw Paw’s diapers before the task became so overwhelming that my mother was forced to admit him to a nursing home.

In 1983 (nine years later), my father’s step (hate that word) grandmother, Mama Dora (Antonia Dora FEDERICO, 1902-1983) passed away at age 80. I refused to visit her in hospital for weeks because I knew she was waiting for me in order to be released. Once I overcame my fear, went to the hospital, held her hand and whispered “I love you” into her ear, she passed away peacefully. I shall forever regret my callous selfishness in not wanting to live in world without her. 

Traumatized by the loss of my most beloved, I eschewed attending funerals. I could not bear the pain of loss — either my own family members or those of friends. At every funeral invitation, my mind turned to how I had to be restrained from throwing myself into my grandfather’s grave and carried from the funeral service to my grandmother’s home, where I slept in her bed, crying in agony for days.

Eighteen years beyond that vow, my father died in 2001 (age 87); my mother in 2005 (age 76). When my father passed, I was living in Paris. Friends potted up the money to buy me a ticket home so I (his only child) could attend to his last rites (which I heralded with a display of Easter lilies). I returned home from Paris in 2003 and had the good fortune of spending the last two years of my mother’s life with her living in my home — a place I organized for the specific purpose of caring for her.

Where does all of this history lead me?

I have concluded that I don’t want to remember people in death… I prefer to recall them in LIFE…. AND I have no doubt whatsoever that their spirits continue to exist in another realm where they await me with open arms. 

My mother’s ashes are preserved in an urn that I keep on a bookshelf. My father is on another shelf — just above hers. (She told me before she died that they couldn’t be on the same shelf unless I wanted to find ashes spewed all over the floor :)

When I recently introduced my two young grandchildren to their great grandparents, they marvelled at the idea of the temporal body v. the everlasting life of the spirit.

I have no idea when my time will come, but I know it won’t be that much longer before it does. My only prayer is that someone will remember my name.

THANK YOU

16 May 2013

Disappointment

The OBA Indiegogo campaign just ended. Regrettably, we fell far short of achieving our goal of $50,000 to jumpstart the evolution of Our Black Ancestry into a subscriber based destination for African Americans seeking to discover ancestral roots in slavery.

To say that I am disappointed would be an understatement…. I thought that — surely — with 6000+ website hits per month and 1700+ souls on OBA Facebook pages, we would raise far in excess of what we did. (Imagine… if only all of those hits/members had contributed $25 each, we would have exceeded our financial goal four-fold = $200,000.) 

I can’t help but reference the fact that IndieGoGo has served over 100,000 projects  in 196 countries with successful projects ranging from the sublime (building housing, schools and wells) to the ridiculous (replacing somebody’s tooth).

I don’t want to engage in a “sour grapes” diatribe, but I do want to point out how mystified I am that the OBA campaign achieved such dismal results. Did we write our pitch wrong? Did we overestimate the level of interest? Did we underestimate the effect of a bad economy on people’s ability to contribute to meaningful causes? Or is genealogy just not a popular enough subject in the African American community? Are we satisfied with the existing “mega-providers” and just don’t care about supporting our own? (If you have an answer, I would really like to hear it.)

The GOOD NEWS is that the work of OBA will NOT STOP. 

To the 29 people who contributed to our campaign …. We THANK YOU will all our hearts.

We will use the $1001 we raised to pay hosting fees to the service provider of the OBA website for another year.

Beyond that, we are still solid with a partner who will digitize family records at no cost. (The first batch — HAIRSTON plantation ledgers — will be sent to them in a couple of weeks.) We also have a major supporter who initially promised to match public donations but has agreed (in spite of our dismal results) to move forward in funding the creation of a prototype site.

In the final analysis, I remain convinced in my heart that OBA’s work is blessed by the ancestors. As the founder and webmaster, I will never stop working to empower our future by honoring our past — discovering the dreamers who dreamed a better world for you and me.

A luta continua.

A Crumbled Dynasty

1 May 2013

GUEST BLOG by Diana Roman

I can still smell the musty pages of one of my mother’s most cherished possessions — the family bibles. They were among the few items she had left from a crumbled dynasty. On the frontal pages, the matriarch of the time would chronicle the lives of family members after their passing.  (The Hairston family seemed to have a regular practice of recording endless details of their lives.)

I knew my mother, Sallie Staples Hunt Hairston, was born in the countryside of Virginia, and I knew her family had a long-standing history as the earliest settlers in Pittsylvania County. It was only recently that I learned the full scope of what the Hairston dynasty was and how it derived its wealth. 

My ancestors were among the wealthiest people of their time — not because they had the most money in the bank, but because they owned the most slaves in American history.  The sheer size and scope of their “business” boggles my mind. The Hairston family owned 42 plantations in three states and enslaved more than 10,000 people.

Oak Hill Plantation Mansion in Pittsylvania County, VA -- built in 1825 by Samuel Hairston

Oak Hill Plantation Mansion in Pittsylvania County, VA — built in 1825 by Samuel Hairston

I try to imagine “upbeat” scenarios of day-to-day plantation life and how my ancestors surely must have been “good” to their slaves — not like all the other “mean” slave owners.  But is there really such a thing as a benevolent master?

Five generations later, I struggle to comprehend what happened and how I feel in my heart to be connected to ancestors who did something I so totally abhor. 

In the final analysis, l can’t deny my connection, but what that engenders for me is a burning desire to do something “right.” I long to “reconcile” this inheritance so my children can inherit a different legacy.

I recently began to wonder if my ancestors chronicled the lives of their slaves with as much meticulous detail as they did themselves.  Amazingly, I found that they did. They recorded all of the marriages, deaths and births of the 10,000+ people they enslaved in ledgers that span a 200 year period of history.

Once I got over the ugliness, I realized that these ledgers are a gold mine of genealogy.  While the Hairston family was among the biggest  sinners of slavery, their wealth allowed them the luxury of rarely selling slaves; which means they rarely broke up families. Their ledgers provide documentation that can help so many contemporary African American descendants discover their relationships – to people past and present.

I realize that the data in these ledgers may bring initial sadness to those descended from the people the Hairstons enslaved.  But I am hoping researchers will take faith in a lingering personal respect and admiration for those ancestors who were strong enough  to endure their predicament and continue against all odds to embrace the dream of a better life for their children – just as I do for my own.

Today, if you were to visit the land where the grand old mansion “Oak Hill” used to be, you would find an overgrown yard and a pile of bricks.  My mother never lived in the big old house, but rather in a makeshift log cabin built to house her family temporarily until the matriarch, her grandmother, died. I can’t help but consider it a blessing that she never lived the life she dreamed, of being heiress to a mansion built on the proceeds of slavery.  Rather, she grew up a poor country girl in the shadows of shame. 

Oak Hill mansion was burned down by vandals in 1988

Oak Hill mansion was burned down by vandals in 1988

It is my sincerest hope that my generation can reconcile the family “issue” of slavery.  I am on a mission to make the contents of the Hairston ledgers available online – through Our Black Ancestry. This is a history that belongs to us all. It is yours and mine; black and white; slave holder and enslaved. We have to name it and claim it in order to move forward.EVERYONE deserves to know from whence they came and it is my deepest desire to bring honor and respect to the lives of the people the Hairston family might have held in physical bondage but whose souls they never truly enslaved.

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