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.
26 June 2010
I have recently surmised that my maternal ancestral origins are within the Makua tribe of Mocambique. DNA tests revealed a definite match with the Bantu people there.
I wish I had known this on the weekend I spent enjoying myself at the Hotel Polana in Maputo.
While living in South Africa, I went with a friend on an excursion into the war ravaged country of Mocambique. We had to take great care in staying in “safe” areas. There are estimated to be more than 2 million land mines buried all over the country. In 2003, 800 people died every month from land mine explosions. I was there in 1998. Thus, I can only imagine how pervasive the problem must have been at that point.
I went because it was convenient for me to do so. I was living in South Africa at the time. I was on a mission to explore the continent of Africa in general and my immediate surroundings in particular. Maputo was a short 602 kilometres from my home in Houghton, Johannesburg. I was driving a hot Mazda MX6 — one step up from an “authentic” sports car.
I remember the breezy drive along the very modern highways of South Africa and then arriving in Maputo, a capital city devastated by 15 years of civil war, with highways pockmarked with the residue of war . The one bright spot was the hotel at which we stayed — the Polana.
Outside the confines of the Polana, people were living in desperation. They had to carry water up the stairs of impressively tall apartment buildings. Women were hustling their bodies on the beach. People were begging on the streets. The police threatened to confiscate my car.
My friend and I ate well. I have vivid memories of the peri-peri shrimp, highly spiced and oh so succulent. My friend gambled at the hotel casino and lost all his money. We enjoyed drinks afterwards in the hotel bar. All in all, we had a verygood time.
It was shocking when we reached the border to go back home to Johannesburg. There, we encountered so many hapless people waiting, desperate, trying to get into South Africa, an undeniably better place to be.
Today I know, the people of Mocambique are my ancestral people. After researching, I even found a picture of a Makua woman who had the same high cheekbones and broad nose that my great grandmother had. Our family ascribed that to being “Indian.” But the DNA results say otherwise.
I cannot tell you how happy I am to finally have the satisfaction of knowing that I came from somewhere. Gladly, somewhere in Africa.
That is something that was snatched away from us — African Americans. We are the only people in the world who have no place to belong, no where to claim as our own and no where to go.
Now, I want to go back. I want to revel in the idea of having a “homeland.” I want to experience “from whence I came.” I want to stop being rootless, nameless and hopeless.
THAT, for me, is the ultimate reward of all this genealogical research to which I have devoted myself over the last 30 year.
I am MAKUA. A proud woman of African genesis on a quest to find my SELF.
26 June 2010
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Father’s Day — without my father.
As they would say in one of the countries in which I have lived, my father is “late”. I cannot think of a more apt description. It is as if I am still waiting for Arthur Leslie to arrive.
I think the metaphysical waiting (the psychic part within us which yearns in vain for that which it can never possess) must have commenced on the very first day I became consciously aware that my father was…. my father. This was the price I had to pay in order to experience the enjoyment of a relationship that, for a small child, is the essence of love. It is a wait that, no matter how short, feels like forever.
All of us have two parents. A mother and a father. Only two. This is whether you grow up with them, appreciate them, respect them or even know who they are. Human biology starts with this one simple fact – whether you are an orphan or a much loved child. The rest is left to personal circumstance.
My father’s family was not remarkable. They didn’t discover or invent anything. There are no buildings named for them. Even their final resting places are mostly unmarked. But, the marvel of it all for me is that they LIVED. In their ordinariness, they lived out the small dreams every one of us has and procreated a person like me who has been able to carve a space in a world much larger than they ever could have imagined.
It is through the death of the man who was my own unique and special father that I finally came to realize the special gift that he – and only he – gave me. And that is the gift of my life: The opportunity to be born so that I could live in this world and make my mark.
Now that my father truly is “late” – I realize very poignantly how Arthur Leslie was the only father I ever had or ever will have. I sometimes cry when I think of how little I thought about that when he was alive.
How I wish now that my father had shared more – or perhaps that I had listened more or asked more — so that I could be comforted by a more complete knowledge of his past and the world in which he lived. Armed with the personal tidbits he did give me, I have been inspired to a lifetime of genealogical research to fill in the blanks.
It is my expectation that my father is sitting up in heaven (or wherever it is we go when we are late), reunited with his grandparents, parents and brothers. In my mind’s eye, I see Arthur and his brothers, Frank and Bob, sitting around a kitchen table, laughing and joking. There is a highball glass of whiskey on the rocks at his elbow. All of them are laughing at all of us for crying over them.
There is an African proverb that says one is never dead as long a someone remembers your name. Well, I remember and, in so doing, I honour my father in the only way I know how.