2 September 2014
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?
1 April 2014
Doing research to identify our enslaved ancestors is difficult and frustrating beyond belief. One reason is that many of the records we need to document their names are hidden inside the records of the families who enslaved them. I hope the blog reprinted below will inspire other who hold the keys to our past to lift the veil of secrecy.
About a month ago I joined a black ancestry group on Facebook. You may think this is an odd thing to do considering I am not black. I did it for a specific reason, to ask a question that had been plaguing me for a long time. The following is the question that I finally asked about five days days ago.
“I have had this question rolling around in my head for several years but didn’t know who I could ask about it. I have been afraid it may offend people but I have read some posts on here so I feel comfortable asking. Let me preference it with this: Unfortunately, I have several slave owners in my family tree, some dating back into the late 1600s. I have some wills that give names and locations. Would it help others if we were able to list those names and locations on our trees so their family could find them? If this were possible what would be the correct way of doing this? Thank you in advance for your answers.”
I was hoping for a little direction or maybe a few ideas as to how to share this information in a way that would benefit those who would need it. I was overwhelmed with the numerous responses I received! Here are a few of them:
“Valerie Hughes, bless you for wanting to do this….and for overcoming your fear History IS what it IS, and we’re all in it, no matter how we got here. It’s highly refreshing to have come across you, and your willingness to share your information with those that can benefit. Hey, Black folks just wanna KNOW some stuff, and for those of us who do, MUCH THANKS to you.”
” I haven’t begun to find a slave master for my ancestors so I say list the information and thank you, Valerie Hughes for your forward thinking. “
“You are a blessing to so many looking for slave families. I wish ALL descendants of slaves would make the wills available. Thank you Valerie Hughes!!”
I was so incredibly humbled by the excitement and encouragement I received. I started thinking how can I help to pass this along so that others can also share what ‘slave owner/slave’ information that they may have?
A couple of the group members gave me websites so I could add the information I found on the wills, Estate Records and the 1850 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules that I had to them. I have submitted three family records so far and I will be adding more as I am able. Then I started thinking, what else could be done? Surely I am not the only one with this vital information. I know how I feel when I come upon a brick wall in my family and I also know how I feel when I am able to break through that wall and find the information I desperately needed. It is the best feeling in the world and I think everyone should have a chance at experiencing it. So here is what I can up with:
#1) As you go through your family trees or your documents take the time to copy any ‘slave owner/slave’ information that you find. This can include any oral histories you may have.
#2) Submit them to the appropriate websites.
#3) Tell others about doing this. Paying it forward is always a good thing!
#4) Contact Ancestry and Family Search and encourage them to develop a way of adding this information to our trees in a way that can be searchable.
I want to encourage everyone who reads this to take the time to do these things because in doing so we can enrich the lives of others who are also searching for their Family History!
Valerie Hughes is a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, wife, mother and grandma. She has written two books: Your Family History: Doing It Right The First and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip – both of which are available on Amazon.com
Here is a link to her original blog post: http://genealogywithvalerie.wordpress.com/
4 January 2014
This is my great grandmother, Rhoda Reeves Leslie. Tall, copper colored and handsome, she is a woman whose dreams I shall never know.
If I could have ONE DAY with someone who’s gone, it would be a day with THIS woman — who must have been SO STRONG that slavery could not diminish her, the bearing of nine children could not weaken her, and memory could not erase her.
After her husband died in 1938, Rhoda came to live in Chicago at the behest of her two sons — my grandfather Robert and his brother Tommie Joe. At age 88, she left behind the small house on Ripley Street in Montgomery that defied the Confederate capitol a few blocks away and ventured to the “promised land” of the north.
When I was born in 1951, Mama Rhody was 101 years old. She had already lived a full century and my thoughts can only beg to imagine what her eyes might have seen. At three years old, all I remember is her impressive stature. At six feet tall, her commanding presence exuded power even as her silent ways exuded mystery and love.
Because I was a mere child, I never had the opportunity to really talk to her. I don’t know what abominations her eyes were vision to, what thoughts swirled in her mind, what memories she held what dreams to which she aspired. ‘
Knowing her is something I would sooooo like to do — especially because my family who knew her always said that I was her mirror. If I could meet Mama Rhody today, there are SO MANY impertinent questions I would ask!
My father (her grandson) told me she left slavery with her husband and mother from Lowndes County, Alabama.
One story, reported by my father, is that the white wife of Rhoda’s father, enraged at her husband’s bastard/slave child, threw baby Rhoda against a wall when she was about two years old. The assault threw her into into convulsions.
Who was the father? Who was his vicious wife? Where did it happen? What transpired after?
She said she was “Indian” but nobody knows for sure if that is true. If she was, she would likely have been Choctaw.
Did her mother travel on the “Trail of Tears”?
All I have to substantiate the Indian claim comes from my first cousin/sister Francine (another bastard child in a different generation) who lived with Mama Rhody when she was a little girl. She is totally convinced that Rhody’s claim was true, but all she remembers is that she saw her smoke cigars – lighted with great ceremony — and spit tobacco into a cup.
Does that an “Indian” make?
In my continuing quest to know, I have culled every memory I could from Rhoda’s surviving descendants:
Her children’s death certificates variously state that she was born in Louisiana, North Carolina or Tennessee. Her surname was alternately reported as Reeves, Jones and Tolliver.
First cousin/uncle Lonnie recalls her consuming a shot of whiskey and an aspirin every day. As a small boy, he was dispatched on a daily daily run to the general store to fetch her supplies.
My grandmother Dora (second wife of Rhody’s son, Robert) said Mama Rhody, characteristically quiet, was a force to be reckoned with. She recounted Rhoda standing up to her son’s abuse by telling him not to hurt Dora in the throes of a drunken, angry diatribe.
It was not until I was an adult and became a serious genealogist that I made my pilgrimage to Lowndes County and Montgomery.
In Lowndes I found the most impoverished community in America, built atop the rich black dirt that made cotton king when Rhoda was in her prime. The Black Panthers conducted their first voter registration drive here. When impassioned people marched from Selma to Montgomery, Lowndes County was where they pitched their tents and defied the local order.
In Montgomery, I walked Ripley Street where Rhody’s demolished house once stood. In Oakwood Cemetery, the graveyard a few blocks distant, I thumbed through burial cards and found many relatives I did not know. Tom Leslie (Rhody’s husband/my great grandfather) and my father’s mother Julia Williams are buried in “Scott’s free burying ground” — a place reserved for po’ folks.
Ahhhhhhh, Mama Rhody…
Where did you come from? Who were your mother and father? Did you have brothers and sisters? What was slavery like? Is that baby name I found in Scott’s free burying ground your child? Who am I? Where do I belong?
These questions weigh on my mind because whomever you were is a large part of who I am.
May God bless and keep you as I continue trying to unravel the mystery of your life.
26 December 2013
This is the time of year…. beyond any other… that I soooooooooooooooooooo miss my departed loved ones. Most especially, I miss my mother = Delores Marie NICHOLSON (1929-2005).
It is a truism to say that we have only ONE mother…. who occupies a unique and precious place in our hearts that no other person… in the world, ever… can fill.
Here you see her, looking pensive as she languishes in the glow of the “merry” Christmas tree on the sun porch of our family homestead on the Southside of Chicago. The baby doll whose face she covers was undoubtedly mine. The gifts too… as my sister had not yet been born.
What was she thinking? Could it have been contemplation of her own Christmases past? The music on the stereo (which was, surely, “Merry Christmas Baby” by Charles Brown — a rendition he played relentlessly from the day after Thanksgiving to the day after New Year’s)? The huge mistake she made in marrying him?
I can only imagine. I shall never know.
THIS is the way I will remember my mama … on Christmas Eve the year before she passed on…. Knowing that FOR ME, her indominitable spirit will ALWAYS be alive!
19 December 2013
GUEST BLOG by Patricia Moncure Thomas
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 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/
15 November 2013
GUEST BLOG by Harold Lee Rush
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!”
9 November 2013
After weeks of anticipation, I finally saw the movie 12 Years a Slave.
In trying to unpack my thoughts, the one thing I do not want to do is review the film. Others will do that far more adeptly than I. Suffice it to say, the film was STUNNING — in every sense of the word, at all possible levels.
As an African American genealogist, I am more informed than most about the history of African American people and our subjugation to slavery in the Americas. From my personal family tree, I can name 12 ancestors whose humanity was violated. (And that is just the “top note” as I know there are others whose names will never be found.)
For the past 30+ years, I have been on a mission to bring their stories to light — not just for my own edification, but for public exposure. It was thus that I created Our Black Ancestry for the purpose of “empowering our future by honoring our past.”
Every name I learn, every document I uncover, every story I reveal … all of it constitutes a mere fragment in the worldwide complicity of economic aspiration that resulted in a heinous crime against humanity. It is a crime that has never been fully addressed, punished or resolved. White Americans relegate this past to the fond digression of films like Gone with the Wind. African Americans often refuse to look back, perhaps in an attempt to control the antipathy that surely must reside within our wounded souls.
The powerful essence of the movie was that it encapsulated a visual depiction of the words I read in books and documents.
As I witnessed the unfolding story of Solomon Northup, I was mentally transported into a cotton field where my great grandparents toiled without relief in Lowndes County, Alabama.
I lay in the bed of my great grandmother in Noxubee County, Mississippi as she succumbed to sexual objectification by the man who fathered her 17 children — thus being elevated over a 10 year span from “farmhand” to “housekeeper.”
I experienced the anguish of an inconsolable mother whose cries for her stolen children were so overwhelmingly rife with anguish, her fellow slave retorted that she “stop wailing.” She then endured further punishment by being sold away by an owner who refused to entertain the unconscionable pain he had caused.
As Northup was hung by the neck and left dangling in desperation, I envisioned my uncle who was lynched.
I shared the pathos of generations of people — my people — kidnapped, chained, whipped, crippled, violated and traumatized in every possible way. Slave masters reduced themselves and their prey to a level of barbarity that defies imagination, unleashing a vicious cycle of violence that informs our society unto this very day.
I cannot fathom the cognitive dissonance of these men (and their consort wives) who did what they did and justified it with the word of a God I do not know.
In the end, as Northup climbed into the wagon of his rescuers, all he could do was gaze with sadness and longing at the ones he left behind. In the final analysis, it was they who were the most tragic of victims because their subjugation was never to be relieved.
Sixty years removed from the only relative I knew in person who was enslaved — my father’s grandmother — I am limited to a vicarious awareness of what she and my other family members endured. There is no doubt in my mind… I would NOT have survived. Yet, I am grateful they did because, if not for them, I would not BE.
17 September 2013
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.
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!
15 September 2013
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!!!
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.
I 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.
In 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.
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.