Mama Rhody

4 January 2014

Rhoda REEVES LESLIE (1850-1954)

Rhoda REEVES LESLIE (1850-1954)

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.

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!!!

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.

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?

Historic marker for the county seat where my great grandparents were enslaved

When I was a child, many of my friends were recent arrivals from the South whose families came north during “The Great Migration.” Those of us who were born in Chicago sometimes laughed at their funny accents and country ways. There were also many children who disappeared every summer. When school let out for vacation, their parents sent them south to experience country life with their grandparents.

I was not one of those children. Although I have undeniable roots in Alabama and Mississippi, I was not born there nor did I have grandparents in those locations to spend my summers with. I didn’t visit the South until I was a married woman with a child of my own. I have been making pilgrimages back at almost every opportunity since.

As a genealogist, I believe the best way to appreciate the truth about my ancestors is to walk in their footsteps. My journeys take me to a lot of old courthouses, cemeteries and farms.

African Americans have a long history that reaches all the way from the cotton fields of the South across the waters to Africa and all points in between. We provided the labor that built America — literally. Over the four centuries we have been in this land, we have contributed in every possible way to the evolution of American society. I can think of no better way to honor those contributions than by researching my genealogy and trying to see life through my ancestor’s eyes.

During my travels, I have visited the courthouse in Forrest County, Mississippi; a county named for Nathan B. Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where civil rights demonstrators were beaten and incarcerated on “Bloody Sunday” so that my great grandfather would have the right to vote. I went to Tuskegee University, where my grand uncle learned the electrical trade. I found the farm and family graveyard for white ancestors in Mississippi; along with a road that still bears their name. I stood in the remnants of slave markets where my ancestors could have been sold or bought. I discovered a long abandoned cemetery on the plantation land where my ancestors picked cotton.

Almost every location I have visited has a bitter memory associated with it. Yet, every time I go South, I am reminded of the paradox that the South, as bitter as the memories may be, is the only homeland most African Americans will ever know. It is the place of memories that, through genealogy, will live forever in my heart. This is how I know that I am guided by my ancestors. They want to be remembered and reach out to me at every turn. In almost every town, I haven’t needed a GPS to find the ancestral homestead. At virtually every cemetery, I feel like I’m holding a dowsing rod as I discover graves of ancestors I may not even have been looking for.

 

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

DNA results for my first cousin, the only remaining male in my paternal (LESLIE) family line

DNA testing is a modern marvel that makes it possible to “prove beyond doubt” whom you are related to and where your family originated.

National Geographic is leading a project that seeks to chart “new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species by using sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. In this unprecedented real-time research effort, the Genographic Project is closing the gaps of what science knows today about humankind’s ancient migration stories.” Their research suggests that “all humans today descend from a group of African ancestors who—about 60,000 years ago—began a remarkable journey.”

DNA tests are commercially available from a variety of sources, costing from $150-300 per person. This technique is especially useful for African Americans, for whom recordkeeping during slavery was so incomplete and paternal evidence so obscured.

During slavery, it was common for slaveholders to produce children with their female slaves. Because slave children followed the status of their mothers, many of our forefathers (black and white) are lost. In a best case scenario, mixed race children were cared for, educated and enabled to have privileges. In the worst case, they were shunned and sold away.

I am not an expert on DNA, but I do know that there are two strains of genetic material: One comes from the father and the other comes from the mother. When you do DNA testing, you need a person who is a direct line descendant. If you test a male, you will get the paternal result. If you trace a female, you will get the maternal line. That means for me, my mother, her mother, her mother….. I need a male relative to trace back his father, his father, his father….

I have recently found through testing that my maternal ancestral origins are within the Makua tribe of Moçambique. DNA tests revealed a definite match with the Bantu people there. In my joy, I researched to find a picture of a Makua woman. She has the same high cheekbones and broad nose that my great grandmother had. Our family ascribed that to being “Indian.” But the DNA results said otherwise. On my paternal side, I found a preponderance of Scottish and Puerto Rican. Huh?!! The Scottish certainly confirms the origins of my Leslie maiden name. I haven’t figured out the Puerto Rican part yet.

Whatever the results, I cannot express how happy I feel to finally have a definitive answer to where I came from. Now I know for sure, I came from somewhere. What DNA testing did for me was to provide a “homeland,” a place “from whence I came.” That is a major reward for all of the genealogical research to which I have devoted myself over the last 30 years.

I am told there is now a test that can verify both lines and bring the results much closer in physical time. I wish I could tell you more, but, like you, I am still learning.

 

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

Family Memories

18 June 2012

My great grandmother Rhoda REEVES LESLIE circa 1900 @ AL

Family stories are incredibly powerful because they put flesh on the bones of our long dead ancestors, telling us a great deal about who these people were; how they survived and what they felt. And this is where every family historian starts — recording the stories of everyone in your family who has memories to share. You will find factual stories repeated from generation to generation as well as “tall tales” embellished with personal details. Even when stories are not factually correct, almost every one of them has a basis in truth. It will be up to you as the researcher to ferret out the fact from fiction.

When I was born in 1951, I had a great grandmother who was still living. Her name was Rhoda Reeves Leslie. She was, at that time, 101 years old. I remember her well, even though I was far too young to talk to her. She died when I was three years old. With her demise, I still had my grandparents, three of whom survived well into my twenties, and my parents, both of whom I lost within the last ten years. My mother lived with me during the last two years of her life. We filled many hours talking about her past and making family connections. Unfortunately, like most people of her generation, she hadn’t talked to her parents very much, which left big gaps in what she could tell me. In my father’s case, he didn’t want to talk about anything at all. It took years for me to get him to open up.

What he told me led to a plantation in Lowndes County, Alabama, the place from which his grandparents emerged into “freedom.” They went first to Opelika, where his grandfather worked on building a railroad. Later, they went to Montgomery, where they built their lives and raised their children.

My mother’s memories led me to an ancestor who made a claim for herself and her children for recognition as Mississippi Choctaw Indians before the Dawes Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes. Her claim was rejected, but one of her sons succeeded in obtaining a land grant, only to be driven away from his fields by “Night Riders” (minions of the Ku Klux Klan).

Another story, from my mother’s father, led to an uncle who served our country in France in World War I. He died of gas poisoning in a state institution. I learned that he had a wife we had never known about. From other stories, I was led to cousins who crossed the color line and whose descendants, until I met them, had no idea they had black ancestry.

All of these discoveries started with simple stories. It worked for me and it will work for you too. I continue to cherish the sound of my uncle’s voice when I recorded him many years ago telling family stories.

Get a digital recorder and capture those memories while the people who hold them are still alive. If you don’t, you will regret not doing so. It will help a lot if you prepare a list of questions ahead of time before you interview anybody.
This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

What is Genealogy?

21 May 2012

My Family Tree

My Family Tree

Some people are confused about the meaning of the word “genealogy.” Technically, it means “a personal record of your ancestors — when they were born and where they lived, who their children were and who they married and where you belong in your extended family tree.” All of this information is recorded on forms and charts with which you can determine and show where everybody fits in the family picture. Most genealogists are very disciplined about verifying every bit of information they find by locating documents that prove every detail. That is good advice as it is easy to confuse information, especially when so many people share the same names.

People who are more casual often use the term “family history” instead of genealogy. I tend to like that description better, because what we are really doing is more than just recording names, dates and places. It is one thing to learn that Uncle Arthur was born in Mississippi in 1895. But what about his life? What did he look like? Where did he work? What were his interests? Could he read and write? Did he vote?

For European Americans, there are many records to consult. I know families who can trace themselves back to the kings of Europe and the founding fathers of America. For African Americans, recreating one’s family tree is a bigger challenge. There are not as many records that exist to confirm our genealogies. But we all have stories, and those stories, more than anything else, help us discover who we are in our hearts.

In the 1970s interest in genealogy by African Americans was propelled by the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots. This book and TV miniseries was profoundly influential in encouraging genealogical exploration by America’s former slaves. It was also the first time contemporary European Americans got a glimpse into the realities of slavery. I am told by white friends that it had a major impact on them as well.

One of the reasons Roots and other programs that have been on television lately are so powerful is because they tell the stories of real people — just like you and me. There is something profound about the story of Tom Joyner’s uncles who were wrongly executed for murder and how Tom made things right by getting them exonerated posthumously. There was inspiration in the story of Lionel Ritchie’s ancestors in Tuskegee, Alabama. As he stood in the midst of a cemetery, he was overcome with emotion and said, “This is about as close to a spiritual awakening as I’ve ever had in my whole life.” Even rapper 50 Cent was transformed after being transported back 200 years into the backwoods of South Carolina.

Whether you call it “genealogy” or “family history,” your job is to write things down so that future generations can benefit from what you learn. There is an African proverb that says “you are never dead as long as someone remembers your name.” Our ancestors worked too hard and struggled too valiantly for them to be forgotten.

This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com:  http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html

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