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/
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.
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.
16 June 2013
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.)
“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.”
“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?
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.
16 May 2013
The OBA Indiegogo campaign just ended. Regrettably, we fell far short of achieving our goal of $50,000 to jumpstart the evolution of Our Black Ancestry into a subscriber based destination for African Americans seeking to discover ancestral roots in slavery.
To say that I am disappointed would be an understatement…. I thought that — surely — with 6000+ website hits per month and 1700+ souls on OBA Facebook pages, we would raise far in excess of what we did. (Imagine… if only all of those hits/members had contributed $25 each, we would have exceeded our financial goal four-fold = $200,000.)
I can’t help but reference the fact that IndieGoGo has served over 100,000 projects in 196 countries with successful projects ranging from the sublime (building housing, schools and wells) to the ridiculous (replacing somebody’s tooth).
I don’t want to engage in a “sour grapes” diatribe, but I do want to point out how mystified I am that the OBA campaign achieved such dismal results. Did we write our pitch wrong? Did we overestimate the level of interest? Did we underestimate the effect of a bad economy on people’s ability to contribute to meaningful causes? Or is genealogy just not a popular enough subject in the African American community? Are we satisfied with the existing “mega-providers” and just don’t care about supporting our own? (If you have an answer, I would really like to hear it.)
The GOOD NEWS is that the work of OBA will NOT STOP.
To the 29 people who contributed to our campaign …. We THANK YOU will all our hearts.
We will use the $1001 we raised to pay hosting fees to the service provider of the OBA website for another year.
Beyond that, we are still solid with a partner who will digitize family records at no cost. (The first batch — HAIRSTON plantation ledgers — will be sent to them in a couple of weeks.) We also have a major supporter who initially promised to match public donations but has agreed (in spite of our dismal results) to move forward in funding the creation of a prototype site.
In the final analysis, I remain convinced in my heart that OBA’s work is blessed by the ancestors. As the founder and webmaster, I will never stop working to empower our future by honoring our past — discovering the dreamers who dreamed a better world for you and me.
A luta continua.
1 May 2013
GUEST BLOG by Diana Roman
I can still smell the musty pages of one of my mother’s most cherished possessions — the family bibles. They were among the few items she had left from a crumbled dynasty. On the frontal pages, the matriarch of the time would chronicle the lives of family members after their passing. (The Hairston family seemed to have a regular practice of recording endless details of their lives.)
I knew my mother, Sallie Staples Hunt Hairston, was born in the countryside of Virginia, and I knew her family had a long-standing history as the earliest settlers in Pittsylvania County. It was only recently that I learned the full scope of what the Hairston dynasty was and how it derived its wealth.
My ancestors were among the wealthiest people of their time — not because they had the most money in the bank, but because they owned the most slaves in American history. The sheer size and scope of their “business” boggles my mind. The Hairston family owned 42 plantations in three states and enslaved more than 10,000 people.
I try to imagine “upbeat” scenarios of day-to-day plantation life and how my ancestors surely must have been “good” to their slaves — not like all the other “mean” slave owners. But is there really such a thing as a benevolent master?
Five generations later, I struggle to comprehend what happened and how I feel in my heart to be connected to ancestors who did something I so totally abhor.
In the final analysis, l can’t deny my connection, but what that engenders for me is a burning desire to do something “right.” I long to “reconcile” this inheritance so my children can inherit a different legacy.
I recently began to wonder if my ancestors chronicled the lives of their slaves with as much meticulous detail as they did themselves. Amazingly, I found that they did. They recorded all of the marriages, deaths and births of the 10,000+ people they enslaved in ledgers that span a 200 year period of history.
Once I got over the ugliness, I realized that these ledgers are a gold mine of genealogy. While the Hairston family was among the biggest sinners of slavery, their wealth allowed them the luxury of rarely selling slaves; which means they rarely broke up families. Their ledgers provide documentation that can help so many contemporary African American descendants discover their relationships – to people past and present.
I realize that the data in these ledgers may bring initial sadness to those descended from the people the Hairstons enslaved. But I am hoping researchers will take faith in a lingering personal respect and admiration for those ancestors who were strong enough to endure their predicament and continue against all odds to embrace the dream of a better life for their children – just as I do for my own.
Today, if you were to visit the land where the grand old mansion “Oak Hill” used to be, you would find an overgrown yard and a pile of bricks. My mother never lived in the big old house, but rather in a makeshift log cabin built to house her family temporarily until the matriarch, her grandmother, died. I can’t help but consider it a blessing that she never lived the life she dreamed, of being heiress to a mansion built on the proceeds of slavery. Rather, she grew up a poor country girl in the shadows of shame.
It is my sincerest hope that my generation can reconcile the family “issue” of slavery. I am on a mission to make the contents of the Hairston ledgers available online – through Our Black Ancestry. This is a history that belongs to us all. It is yours and mine; black and white; slave holder and enslaved. We have to name it and claim it in order to move forward.EVERYONE deserves to know from whence they came and it is my deepest desire to bring honor and respect to the lives of the people the Hairston family might have held in physical bondage but whose souls they never truly enslaved.
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.
These are my people who DREAMED a better world. Help me find yours and give them the honour they deserve.
6 December 2012
Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.
My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.
Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.
Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.
When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.
Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”
When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.
It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.
I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.
That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.
Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.
These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him to document an approach to racial healing.
My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelery are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.
In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.
In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.
When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.
28 August 2012
On this day in 1955, an innocent young man named Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. This event embodied all that was wrong with America in that day on the subject of race.
On this same day in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “Dream” speech before an unprecedented congregation of people in Washington, D.C. His speech articulated all that was right in the hearts of people who longed for change. Five years later, he was murdered for “whistling” for Civil Rights, igniting riots across America.
These historic events shaped my life ever after.
I was only four years old in 1955; too young to understand anything other than the admonishments of my parents about the South from which my forbears had fled. Yet, as Emmett Till’s mother said:
“When people saw what had happened to my son, men stood up who had never stood up before. People became vocal who had never vocalized before. Emmett’s death was the opening of the civil rights movement. He was the sacrificial lamb of the movement.”
In 1963, I was 12; fully able to grasp the many messages in Rev. King’s clarion call. As John Lewis, who was then president of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and is now a U.S. Congressman, described:
“Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.”
Three generations later, I sit here contemplating this history and wondering what is in store for the succeeding unborn. For all the strides that have been made, we still have so much further to go.
“But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.”
The countless black men locked in the cells of incarceration speak of generations lost. The “bad bitches” and “baby daddies” who are euphemistically parenting the next generation assault my reasoning ability. The murderous rage afflicting our cities compels me to worry about the safety of my grandchildren on the streets of Harlem and my niece and nephews on the streets of Chicago. The racial innuendos continuously directed at the President of the United States begs me to wonder how far we have really come. The apathy of people who are likely to eschew voting in the November election makes me fear our political fate.
I believe we are standing at yet another juncture in history where “the power of one” will decide the fate of many. We can use our family histories to either empower us or consign us to continued servitude to an economic model that no longer works — for anyone, no matter what race.