2 September 2014
Every year, finances permitting, I head South for genealogical research. I pack up my Jeep with clothes, food, and emergency supplies. My handy GPS leads the way. It knows the back roads far better than I.
In the cache stored in the boot, I have a battery charger, folding shovel, collapsible bucket, and knee-high fireman’s boots. In the glove box, I store a hunter’s knife and ID that shows I own my vehicle and the contents therein. You never know what exigencies might exist on the road less traveled!
Rather than driving interstate highways, I stick to two-lane roads so I can take in the scenery and get a picture of what life might have been like in the communities in which my ancestors lived more than a hundred years before I was born.
This year, I was able to spend two weeks exploring the back roads of ancestral home places in rural Mississippi and Alabama. I hit courthouses and communities in Macon, Mississippi and Lowndes County, Alabama, with many detours along the way. It’s not like I haven’t been to these places before, but I am forever aware that there is always more to see… and feel…. and appreciate. This time, I registered more than 3,000 miles in my quest.
Along the way, there are few stop lights or petrol stations. The landscape is dominated by expansive fields of cotton and corn, interspersed with grazing cows. If my Jeep were to break down, who knows what the consequences might be? An out-of-the-blue summer storm rocked my car to the hinges. I wasn’t sure whether to abandon ship or keep on truckin’.
The entire scene is redolent of a life that an urban woman like me finds hard to comprehend. There are countless churches and, every now and then, I pass a sign reminding me that Jesus is love and hell is a just reward.
I returned from my adventure this year with a box of copies… documents that prove my heritage as a “daughter of slavery” – part of the subtitle of the book I wrote about healing from the egregious legacy from which 90 percent of African Americans descend.
As I culled documents in the Macon courthouse and at the archives in Jackson, my heart was heavy. It’s not like I have not been to these places before, it is just that, every time, I find something new. And, every time, it rends my heart to realize the exigencies of the life my ancestors lived.
I found a MS Supreme Court case where my ancestress, Bettie WARFE/GAVIN, was accused of operating a “bawdy house” and sentenced to jail. There was another case that disputed the land of Seborn GAVIN, who bought, after Emancipation, the plantation upon which he was enslaved by his very own father.
In one testimony (before the Mississippi Supreme Court), Bettie WARFE/GAVIN admitted that she didn’t even know how old she was:
Q About how old are you Aunt Bettie?
A I don’t know sir, how old I am. I was raised up by a white lady and was sold over here from Virginia. I don’t know how old I am, too old to be here.
She also explained:
Q You were convicted of getting children by Bob Gavin?
A Yes sir; he was my master. He bought me from his uncle and I couldn’t help it.
Q Have you ever been convicted of any unlawful cohabitation?
A I was convicted by getting children by my master.
My takeaway from this testimony, and many other documents I found, is that slavery was such an incredibly abominable institution, embraced by an entire nation, it astounds my mind. I am afraid of the possibility that we may never succeed in healing from its effects.
With these observations in mind, is it any wonder that young black boys like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown lay dead, victims of a “system” that views “children” like me as less than human?
3 June 2013
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.
28 February 2013
In a recent moment of reflection, I discovered this window into my thoughts from a while back. It has not much but everything to do with genealogy…
By the time you reach 50, you will have lived long enough to amass an incredibly vast collection of moments. 26,297,438.3 million of them to be exact. It is no wonder then that, over time, the memories associated with those moments fade. They have to. Otherwise, you would spend your days remembering rather than doing.
Beyond half a century, what you get to keep is a Cliff Notes version of your life. It is an edited constellation of only the most profoundly memorable moments; the ones that changed your life, changed the way you think, changed the way you see the world, changed the person you think you are and/or transformed the person you once hoped to be.
When I was born in 1951, America was on an economic roll. Americans were riding a wave of social mobility propelled by the prosperous aftermath of a harrowing world war. Nazi Germany had been vanquished. Harry Truman was the president of the United States. Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason were stars on the recently universalized medium of communication: Television. “The pill” was invented. Russia sent the first satellite into space. Alan Freed coined the term “rock and roll,” while Chuck Berry extolled “Johnny B. Goode.”
In my little corner of the world, life was underscored by the birthright of being born into the tenth percentile of the American population that was not white. Everyone I knew existed in a parallel universe where everything was influenced by race. I grew up in a segregated community known as the “black belt.” The educational standard was “separate but certainly not equal.” Black workers were the “last hired and first fired.” In 1955, a boy named Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi for purportedly whistling at a white woman. That same year, a woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. It was not until 1964, when I was 13, that black people gained the benefit of the Civil Rights Act. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act became law. In 2008, a black man became the President of the United States.
There are many experiences within this tableau that could have been THE moment for me.
When I was 15, I gave up my virginity. Surmising that sex was a vastly overrated experience, I vowed nonetheless to keep on trying. When I was 16, I graduated from high school, having taken a fast track in order to escape an abusive stepparent. I was allowed to leave home but have still not figured out if what I found in the outside world was better. At 17, I got pregnant. It was a rude moment of awakening that made me realize how ignorant I was; most assuredly about birth control. A few months after my 18th birthday, I painfully endured giving birth to my one and only child. The incredible pain encapsulated several hours of THE moments! But in the singular moment I held him in my arms for the first time, I was kissed with the momentous realization of how wondrous is the creative power of God. I thereafter had a reason to keep on living. By 27, I was a divorced woman with a fatherless child to raise on my own. There were many sobering moments after that as I parented him to adulthood.
To say that I have witnessed profound changes in American society would be an understatement. However, in the big perspective of things, these defining moments for society were all pretty mundane experiences, undoubtedly shared by many, if not most, people. None of these events or experiences can accurately be defined as THE moment. Not for me. To choose one out of a collection of so many would diminish the importance of all.
Rather, I have come to believe that I experience what amounts to an “aha moment” each and every day. It hits me at first light each morning when I open my eyes and realize that I am still alive. I am invigorated by the thought of being blessed with another chance to live. My blood bubbles with a desire to make the best of it. And, further, to leave a legacy behind for future generations.
As I gather the courage to rise, I contemplate a three thousand year old swathe of Sanskrit wisdom that admonishes one to think about how “Today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”
The original version of this essay was published in December 2010 in the online Smith Magazine “The Moment” Journal: http://www.smithmag.net/moment/story.php?did=174218
18 September 2012
Sometimes, in our quest to rediscover and connect the dots of our past, we forget to consider the future. I thought about that this weekend as my granddaughter celebrated her third birthday. In the not too distant future, I will stop being the “Shama” she knows and become one of the ancestral spirits who watch over her from another realm. What will I leave behind?
I am determined that her inheritance include a cache of stories and pictures from which she and her brother can learn and gain strength to become the accomplished adults they are destined to be. They will learn that only a few generations ago, their paternal GGGgrandparents labored as slaves in Alabama and Mississippi. They will meet my grandfather “Paw Paw”, the stylish railroad cook and steel mill laborer who raised me; my father “Boots” who was a boxer, bouncer and bartender; my mother “Blossom” who was the most beautiful woman in the world (to me and those who loved her); “Mama Dora” whose roots were in Italy and who worked for Al Capone during prohibition; and “Maw Maw” who came to Chicago as a young farm girl from southern Illinois and helped bust redlining laws that kept black people from buying property. They will be introduced to patriarch Tom Leslie, a man of diminuative stature who married the statuesque Rhody; and Robert Gavin, the Confederate soldier who fathered 17 children with Bettie, his uncle’s captive farm laborer. They will meet all of Bettie’s children, their children, and their children’s children who continue to thrive.
I will also leave behind the products of my imagination… the books, stories, poems and essays I have been writing all my life, which are dedicated to them as “our grandchildren who keep our hopes alive.”
I urge all family historians to pay attention to making the information you so painstakingly research available to future generations. Write your stories. Save your documents and pictures. Put them in a format that will not be lost.
The next generation is depending on us to empower their future by honoring our past.
Make it so!
29 May 2012
If you are interested in genealogy, know that effective research entails commitment. It is a long term journey with many twists and turns. If you are to succeed, you will need a road map. And that road map begins with you.
The very first thing you must do is write down what you know about yourself. When and where were you born? What would you like for future generations to remember about you? It is useful to make copies of important documents to keep in your file. Your birth certificate, marriage certificate, school documents, social security card. These are all things future researchers would want if you were gone and they were looking for you. Make it easy for them. And don’t forget to include photographs: You as a baby, graduating from school, your wedding day…
After documenting yourself, you move on to the previous generation: Your parents. Do the same thing for them. And then, your grandparents. You will be amazed how quickly all this information starts adding up. Each generation is approximately 25 years apart. Over the course of 100 years, that’s four generations, with numbers that grow exponentially. You plus your parents equals 3 plus their parents equals 7 plus their parents equals 21. And that doesn’t include all the other relatives, like brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.
Once you accumulate your information in one spot, the next thing is to sit down and enter it all in one place. People used to do this part manually, but it is so much easier with the help of technology. There is less paper and you can find what you need instantly with the push of a button. That means you will need some software that helps you store and organize your research.
There are many commercial genealogy programs on the market. The most popular ones are FamilyTree Maker, RootsMagic and Legacy. The Latter Day Saints (LDS) offers a free program that satisfies very basic needs. It has no bells and whistles but is perfectly adequate for the novice. It enables you to create something called a PAF (personal ancestral file), which constitutes the building blocks of your family tree. Once you fill in the forms, you can upload the entire file to the LDS repository and be compatible with others who are also looking for family connections. You will find a PAF download at FamilySearch.org.
When you open your software, you will begin your family tree with yourself and then proceed to systematically record information about everyone in your family. As you record the information, make sure to note where it came from. That is a cardinal rule of genealogy: ALWAYS write down your sources so you can go back to them later if you need to.
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
4 March 2012
I spent most of my day yesterday watching the 40th anniversary marathon of The Godfather saga on television. It is one of my all-time favorite films that has not lost one iota of relevance in the passage of time. As I watched, I could not help but think about my family history and the fascination with gangsters I share with so many others.
My interest in mafia movies (and other things Italian) is inspired by my beloved grandmother — Antonia Dora FEDERICHO. She is but one of the people in my family tree with connections to Italy, not merely as a birthplace but because of their service to Al Capone.
One relative (Joe JENNINGS) worked at Capone’s Marion Hotel in Chicago and was friendly with “the boss,” who once rewarded him with the promise of a Vicuna coat from his personal wardrobe. The police, on a hunt for Big Al, found the coat (sans Capone) with Joe’s name and address in the pocket. They arrested Joe and interrogated him about Capone’s whereabouts. A police captain came to Joe’s aid and authorized his release. Another relative (Robert GAVIN) took a kidnapping rap for Capone, a magnanimous (?) act that resulted in 16 years of incarceration at Pontiac State Prison in Illinois.
Then, there were my grandparents.
In 1922, when my grandfather (Robert LESLIE) married Antonia Dora FEDERICHO, he married into a family with connections. Dora’s mother (Filomena MAGLIONICA FEDERICHO) came from the same village in Italy as Capone’s mother Teresina and they were lifelong friends. Filomena owned a grocery store on Chicago’s Southside. Her husband (Antonio FEDERICHO) operated ice trucks, which their oldest son (John) drove. During Prohibition, these “hooch friendly” business enterprises had ties to the Capone organization. Dora and Bob sold hooch (which Dora attributed as the cause of my grandfather’s alcoholism and the associated violence that led to their divorce).
When Bob and Dora married, the 20 year old Dora was fresh from a stint in the House of the Good Shephard, a Catholic industrial school for girls. She soon adopted my seven year old father and his two brothers, who had been orphaned when their biological mother died in 1921. Dora was the only mother they ever knew. My middle name is an honorific to her, I spent my childhood summers in her care and, when she died in 1983, I locked myself in her bedroom for days, crying my eyes out.
My father told me that, when Dora’s family first met Bob, they thought he was a “dark Dago.” They were no doubt surprised when Bob’s darker skinned children arrived in Chicago, however, the LESLIE boys were accepted and grew up into the family business. I never met any of Dora’s relatives until her funeral, but was pleased to learn that they knew about me and how special I was to her.
There is whole lot more I could say about Dora, but I will let her rest. The intriguing historical angle is that my genealogical research into her family led me to some truly unexpected information about the history of Italians in America. Italians were never slaves, but 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 lynched in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. Five shopkeepers were lynched in 1899 for giving equal status to black customers in Tallulah, Louisiana. During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to Italy were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.
When Dora’s father immigrated to the United States in 1878, his greatest wish was to become an American. That dream was accomplished in 1897, when he filed his petition for citizenship at Mount Vernon, New York. Like Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Antonio worked his way up from being a stone cutter in New York to being a businessman in Chicago. He died of unknown causes in 1914.
Now that I have connected with Dora’s ancestral spirits, I wonder if I can consider myself a “made” woman?!!
18 August 2010
I am getting ready to hit the road tomorrow for my annual genealogy adventure. I am headed to previously unvisited counties in Alabama and (if my strength holds out) Mississippi. Between now and Labor Day, I expect to drive about 2500 miles.
There is one side of my family that I feel I have been neglecting lately — the paternal LESLIE clan. So I shall be focusing on them this year. One of my goals is locating the cemetery in which I believe the progenitor of my Leslie surname rests. That would be James E. Leslie, who is buried in New Bethel Cemetery in Lowndes County.
James was the local blacksmith circa 1850 when my GGrandfather was born. In the 1850 census, he’s listed with one female slave. Can’t read whether her age is 50 or 30. I’m betting 30 and that she might be my GGrandmother. There was no housing listed for her on the slave schedule, so she would have been in the house with the 27 year old bachelor James.
Last year, my efforts were rewarded with finding a probate document in the Dallas County courthouse that appears to list my great grandfather (“”boy Tom”) and his mother (“woman Harriett”) as part of the estate inventory associated with Thomas Reeves. Tom was valued at $1000, Harriett at $400.
Every time I see one of these references, I am reminded of just how strong our ancestors were. If not for them, I could not be.
And so, I’m off to seek the wizard… the yellow brick road will lead me to Lowndes County, Alabama. I will click the heels of my ruby red shoes together if I get in trouble :)