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.

Ashes to Ashes

3 June 2013

DSCF0182

As a genealogist, I tend to focus on researching/identifying ancestors who dwell in the deep, dark recesses of history — long before I was born. I attribute that inclination to a primeval calling to discover the earliest origins of who I am. As an African American, my ancestral roots lay in slavery; a research path shrouded in mystery.

But recently (probably in response to my mother’s birthday (May 28), I started thinking about contemporary ancestors = family members who lived and died within my own lifetime.

I am fortunate to not have experienced many deaths of immediate family members during the time in which I have lived (which is beginning to be a long time indeed). As I calculate the demise of my loved ones, I realize their deaths have been spaced over long periods of time. In my 60+ years, only seven really close family members have departed this world. (That number doesn’t include aunts, uncles and cousins, only the closest of close — the people who bore and raised me.) The result averages out to one loss per seven years, a period of time that should allow room for healing from profound grief that, no matter how many years pass, never goes away.

The first one to go was my paternal great grandmother; the woman who first inspired my interest in genealogy. Her name was Rhoda Reeves LESLIE (1850-1954). Born into slavery, she died at age of 104 when I was three years old. I can only remember seeing her but not talking to her. I knew nothing about her history until I was an adult and my father (after much resistance) finally told me some of her story, the essence of which propelled me on a genealogical journey that continues to this day.

Nine years later, in 1963, I lost my mother’s mother — Jeanette Waymoth NICHOLSON (1902-1963). Maw Maw dropped dead (at age 60) right before my 12 year old eyes. After drinking a refreshing glass of tap water from the sink in front of a kitchen window, she remarked “What a lovely day” and dropped to  the floor, dead of a massive heart attack. After my mother and aunt carried her to a nearby bed, we all heard her last gasp of breath, which made us think she was still with us. She was not.

A decade on (1973) my father’s father, Robert LESLIE (1893-1973) died at age 79. I never knew him well because my mother kept me away from my father’s people. Yet, when I attended Mr. Gentleman’s funeral, I cried inconsolably for the man I didn’t know, bruised to the core because I wasn’t even mentioned in his obituary with his other grandchildren.

The next year (1974), my mother’s father, Louis Bell NICHOLSON (1895-1974) died of old age at age 80. His heart just STOPPED. The rock of my existence, I remember changing Paw Paw’s diapers before the task became so overwhelming that my mother was forced to admit him to a nursing home.

In 1983 (nine years later), my father’s step (hate that word) grandmother, Mama Dora (Antonia Dora FEDERICO, 1902-1983) passed away at age 80. I refused to visit her in hospital for weeks because I knew she was waiting for me in order to be released. Once I overcame my fear, went to the hospital, held her hand and whispered “I love you” into her ear, she passed away peacefully. I shall forever regret my callous selfishness in not wanting to live in world without her. 

Traumatized by the loss of my most beloved, I eschewed attending funerals. I could not bear the pain of loss — either my own family members or those of friends. At every funeral invitation, my mind turned to how I had to be restrained from throwing myself into my grandfather’s grave and carried from the funeral service to my grandmother’s home, where I slept in her bed, crying in agony for days.

Eighteen years beyond that vow, my father died in 2001 (age 87); my mother in 2005 (age 76). When my father passed, I was living in Paris. Friends potted up the money to buy me a ticket home so I (his only child) could attend to his last rites (which I heralded with a display of Easter lilies). I returned home from Paris in 2003 and had the good fortune of spending the last two years of my mother’s life with her living in my home — a place I organized for the specific purpose of caring for her.

Where does all of this history lead me?

I have concluded that I don’t want to remember people in death… I prefer to recall them in LIFE…. AND I have no doubt whatsoever that their spirits continue to exist in another realm where they await me with open arms. 

My mother’s ashes are preserved in an urn that I keep on a bookshelf. My father is on another shelf — just above hers. (She told me before she died that they couldn’t be on the same shelf unless I wanted to find ashes spewed all over the floor :)

When I recently introduced my two young grandchildren to their great grandparents, they marvelled at the idea of the temporal body v. the everlasting life of the spirit.

I have no idea when my time will come, but I know it won’t be that much longer before it does. My only prayer is that someone will remember my name.

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.

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

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

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