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?

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!

Decoration Day

26 May 2013

Nathaniel McNAIR (uncle of Arthur Leslie -- unknown location)

As I spent my day pondering the meaning of Memorial Day, and its relevance to genealogy, I was led to an account of how the day we now celebrate had it’s genesis in the African American community as a celebration of the end of the Civil War which resulted in the Emancipation of four million people from slavery. That commemoration has evolved to include all casualties of all wars from the Civil War forward.

In the course of my research, I found an account by Historian David Blight, associate professor of history at Connecticut College, who reports:

SoldiersAfrican Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

Read the entire article: http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/14684833-the-black-roots-of-memorial-day

My personal memories of war are limited to second hand tales of WWII shared by my mother, her brother who served and their contemporaries.

The benchmark war of my generation was in Vietnam. I remember well going to the train station almost every week with friends who had been drafted. Many of them never came back — or returned irrevocably damaged (physically and/or mentally) from the experience.

It is hard to believe that, during this time — when adored world boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to serve — I was a member of my high school ROTC. I achieved the rank of Major, but a military career? No way.

I shared Ali’s feelings when he said:

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?  No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.  This is the day when such evils must come to an end…. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.  I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs.  So I’ll go to jail, so what?  We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

Contemplation of all this history inspired me to wonder how many people in my family tree served in the military. Having never tried to connect the dots before, I was surprised at how many I found.

In a world where more than 100 wars are currently in progress, I have so many thoughts about the subject — it’s horror and futility. Everyone who serves does so with honor, no matter how unjust the war. Putting one’s life on the line (for any reason) is a sacrifice of immeasurable proportion. My heart breaks for the families who endure the loss of loved ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice and for the soldiers who return and are treated so callously by the Veteran’s Administration and other agencies of government.

My great hope is that war will someday (soon) become obsolete — and I don’t mean just the act of sending people off to fight, but the act of waging war of any kind, for any reason.

With that in mind, here is my family honor roll:

Louis NICHOLSON (my mother’s father) said he spent “a few weeks” in service during WWI and  I remember the .38 revolver he proudly showed as a souvenir. I have never found a record of his service although I  have his draft registration card from 1917, when the corners were torn off to indicate race.

Walter Robert NICHOLSON (his brother) served with distinction in WWI on the battlefields of France. When he returned home, many American cities were in flames from race riots. He died a cruel death in a state mental hospital from the effects of gas poisoning in 1929.

Louis NICHOLSON, Jr. (my mother’s brother) served in the Navy during WWII. Because of his appearance, he was treated like a white man, which came with the dubious privilege of being entrusted with superior weaponry. He jokingly told us that he would have much preferred being treated as black so he could work in the kitchen instead of shooting people. I am able to relive his experience from the many letters he and my mother shared while he was in service.

Eugene Owen GAVIN (cousin) served in WWI in France and was awarded a Purple Heart. His service was ironic in that, some years before the war, his family had been driven off of their land by “night riders” in OK in obvious rebuke of their civil rights.

Eugene Victor GAVIN (cousin), a registered Communist, was a Merchant Marine and an early volunteer in the Spanish American War, where he served in the “mixed” Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Assigned to a Spanish formation, he was severely wounded and lost an eye.

His brother, Robert Owen GAVIN served in this same brigade as a medic. He disappeared in 1938 “in combat against the enemy.”

Robert LESLIE (my father’s brother) enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Ft. Huachuka AZ, famous as the headquarters of the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers). After a year, he was dismissed as “unable to adapt to service” for reasons I have yet to discover.

Ulysses Simpson LESLIE (my father’s uncle) This son of parents who were enslaved in AL served in WWI. I never met him in person and have no details.

Nathaniel McNAIR (cousin) served in WWI. I know absolutely nothing about him other than the photo of him in his uniform, which is at the head of this blog post.

Francine Evelyn LESLIE (my first cousin) was a WAVE. She fled her abusive father by enlisting in the Navy and never experienced combat. Her military service enabled her to be educated as a nurse, a career from which she recently retired.

I don’t have enough details to shout out Paul FARMER (US Army), Frederick WILLIAMSON (USAF) and Charles LITTLE (USN) — but their service is not forgotten.

And then, there are others I have a hard time “honoring” — the white men of the GAVIN family of Noxubee County, MS. More than 10 served in the Confederate Army and mostly survived. At least two of them (Gabriel and Robert Lewis) had black “families” back on the plantation and I will never comprehend how they lived with that hypocrisy.

Perhaps this egregious service can be tempered by knowing that my white grandmother’s grandfather Daniel WAYMOTH served on the Union side from Indiana. Severely wounded in an accident  unrelated to combat, he spent many painful years fighting for a pension that was posthumously awarded to his widow. His family disowned my grandmother when she married a black man in Chicago in 1926.

I will update my list again next year, but until then, think about this:

I Am the Dream

14 April 2013

I have long dreamed of being able to make a MAJOR contribution to the world of genealogy for African Americans. From the first day I realized how truly hard it is to uncover our roots in slavery (which is where the ancestral past for 90% of contemporary African Americans is buried), I have yearned to find my own way and to help others negotiate their path through this circuitous and brambled road to the past.

On my own behalf, I longed to discover the facts about my ancestors whose children departed the onus of slavery in Alabama and Mississippi — making a way out of no way as they recreated their destinies in the “promised land” of Chicago. I have since found the NAMES of 12 of my ancestors, associated with an awareness that there are many more who will likely remain “buried in the past.”

In my quest, I remember well the momentous day in the reading room of the Alabama Department of Archives and History when, after days of research, I FINALLY found a slave schedule for the white man whom I believe to be the father of my paternal great grandfather. I sat there in front of a microfilm reader, stunned in disbelief with tears in my eyes — stricken to my core as I confronted the FACT that there were NO NAMES … only an assaulting reference to to the owner. He WAS named, along with a list of the ages and genders of his “possessions”… My forbears were summarily reduced from being PEOPLE to being ticks on a slave schedule. At the very moment my discovery incited a searing pain that coursed through my my entire body, a white woman sitting next to me exclaimed with JOY, having found the NAMES and DETAILS of HER ancestors.

My reaction was instantaneous and visceral … I felt an almost overwhelming desire to slap the crap out of the woman next to me — blinded by the resonance of her joy juxtaposed against my pain. At that moment, it became painfully clear that meticulous white record keepers had preserved THEIR records but not OURS. (Which is one reason for the name of this website/blog =  OUR Black Ancestry.)

Sensing my alarm, the man who worked for the archives (a black man) put his hand on my shoulder and tried to comfort me. He said “We all feel that way…the first time — I see it all the time…”

Indeed we do and well we should.

As all of us who are dedicated to the quest to discern “from whence we came” are painfully aware of how EXTREMELY difficult it is to achieve our goal — to discover the dreamers who endured the brutal experience of slavery and yet held on to dreams of a different life… a dream of what their progeny might be today. It is only dogged pursuit that keeps us going… searching relentlessly for names in wills, deeds and family records… hoping against hope to find answers and to give honour to those who were deprived of their humanity as they built the economy of the western world.

In our quest, there comes a day when each and every one of us hits that proverbial “brick wall” — the census of 1870 — the first “legal” record that acknowledged black people as PEOPLE… with surnames, ages, birthplaces and … families…. connections that are vital to knowing who we are.

In 2007, I built the Our Black Ancestry website in the hope that — one day — I would find an answer… for me and many others. For all these years, I have financed Our Black Ancestry out of my pocket. But, in order to evolve into the site I want Our Black Ancestry to be… I have to build it into a business — one that pays for the expertise, records and technology that will transform my dream into reality.  

Today, I think I might have FINALLY found the route that can make my dream come true.

My goal is to build a one-stop repository that leads African Americans to their enslaved ancestors. Visitors to the renewed OBA portal will be able to search, see and download documents that NAME and claim our ancestors, engage in a social network based in the best that technology has to offer… share our family trees… make connections with living relatives, plan family reunions… post photos and do so much more.

To this end, I recently launched a campaign on Indiegogo to raise a$50,000 to make my dream (and the dreams of my ancestors) come true. (Here is a link to the campaign: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/our-black-ancestry )

I am hoping that ALL people — black and white — will appreciate how much a repository like this will mean to MILLIONS of people like me who long to know…

Here are photos of my three of my ancestors who were enslaved. In spite of my bounty, I long to know MORE.

Don’t you?

These are my people who DREAMED a better world. Help me find yours and give them the honour they deserve.

Bettie WARFE/GAVIN -- Captured as a 9 year old girl and taken from VA to MS to become the mother of 17 children with a member of her owner's family

Bettie WARFE/GAVIN –Taken as a 9 year old girl from VA to MS to become the mother of 17 children with a member of her owner’s family

Tom LESLIE -- Presumed to be fathered by the local blacksmith in Lowndes County, AL.

Tom LESLIE — Presumed to be fathered by the local blacksmith in Lowndes County, AL.

Rhoda REEVES/LESLIE -- Emancipated from slavery in 1865 in Lowndes County AL.

Rhoda REEVES/LESLIE — Emancipated from slavery in 1865 in Lowndes County AL.

Lost and Found

13 August 2012

I hit the jackpot in the last few weeks in finding lost relatives. It seems like all of a sudden people are coming out of the woodwork to claim the ancestors whose lives I have so painstakingly reconstructed over the last 30 years. I must have finally achieved critical mass in putting enough online so that I can be found. Or maybe it is the ancestral spirits who have led us to reunion.

Hayneville (Lowndes County) Alabama

First, there is Neil LESLIE. He wrote to me after seeing a photograph of his great grandfather’s gravestone on a LESLIE family tree I loaded online some years ago.  I believe (strongly and with little doubt) that he and I share an ancestor; only Neil’s line is white and mine is black. His is “legitimate” — with plenty of documents to prove it. Mine can never be substantiated unless Neil takes a DNA test to see if he matches the last surviving male in my LESLIE line. Neil’s thoughtful response to the information I provided to back up the photo was surprisingly sanguine:

“The upshot of all of this, at least for me, is that I may have African American relations I knew nothing about, a possibility that I (perhaps naively) had never considered. For much of the South’s history, clandestine and unacknowledged interracial sexual unions (whether consensual or forced) and children resulting from those unions were far more common than many people, white or black, were willing to admit. I knew this in an abstract, intellectual way from taking college courses in race relations and the history of the South, but there is a huge difference between understanding something as an abstract concept and seeing how it could affect the history of your own family. I am still trying to process both my emotional reaction to this possibility and the evidence for it that Sharon Leslie Morgan has shared with me thus far. We both want to continue the conversation and gather and interpret more evidence, if it can be found.”

Macon (Noxubee County) Mississippi

Then, there is Lisa GAVIN. She found my online GAVIN family tree, recognized familiar names and contacted me. Her great grandfather and my great grandmother were siblings (no doubt about it; supported with many documents). She never knew of her African American ancestry but was inspired to consider the possibility as she proceeded to unravel secrets about the obscurity of her family origins. Her immediate ancestors always lived as white people. Mine did not even attempt to. This is ironic since we both grew up in or near Chicago. We knew her family existed even though we didn’t know their names. They knew nothing of us, other than one shared relative who they viewed as white and we viewed as black.

Here is what Lisa has to say:

“I, like Neil, am still trying to process all this on an emotional level. It hurts my heart to think that color may have kept us all apart when we lived so close. Now that I know of all this family I’m excited to continue to build relationships and bridge a long overdue gap. I pray that God will continue to bless you for all your painstaking work as you have blessed us by freely sharing it.”

My recent findings lead me to think even more deeply about the “why” of the work I do. Genealogy is  how I fulfill the Our Black Ancestry slogan of “empowering our future by honoring our past.” And here I am experiencing that goal on a very personal level.

When I first started researching, I only wanted to have a better sense of myself: who I am and where I come from; as well as to build a legacy to leave for my offspring so they would not have to ask these questions. They would be secure in knowledge of themselves and have a sense of pride in appreciating their roots in slavery and the strength it took to survive its horrific physical and psychological bonds. In the process, I did not seek out nor expect to find lost relatives — especially not ones who have lived lives defined by myth. They have been presented to me as a by-product of my researching and writing the stories of those who must not be forgotten. I have been delivered to them as a voice of truth.

Now I need to know: Just what is it — exactly — that must be remembered? Is it the fact that slavery and subsequent social mores tore families apart? It is the reality that we are still so “colored” in our beliefs about one another? Is it that “one drop” does not a person make? Or is it that knowledge of our past will help us transcend the legacy of white supremacy and the unrelenting onslaught of black subjugation?

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