The First Time

26 August 2010

Just got back from the Alabama Department of Archives and History. I have been visiting there for many years and always leave with a treasure trove of new information. More on that later.

Right now, I want to recall visions of the past…

I vividly remember finding and viewing my very first slave schedule, one that applied specifically to an ancestor I was looking for. This happened many years ago, but it is still a profoundly evocative memory.

There I was, sitting in front of a microfilm reader at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. A library staff member was standing behind me, helping me pull up the document, poised to explain how to read it.

Suddenly, there it was. Exactly what I was looking for. Right in front of me in black and white. Absolute proof of one person owning another — a stranger owning a possible member of my family.

The slave schedule I was viewing applied to James E. Leslie, a 27 year old blacksmith, born in North Carolina. In 1850, he was a resident of Lowndes County with his wife, Elizabeth, and their newborn baby, Robert. His slave was a 30 year old Black woman of indeterminate name and description.

To say that I was shocked and appalled would be an understatement. Tears filled my eyes and I started trembling. I could barely contain myself.

The white woman sitting at the reader beside me erupted almost simultaneously with a shout of joy because she had found someone she was looking for. She said something like “There he is! My grandfather!” announcing her ancestor’s name with obvious pride.

I wanted to lean over and smack the crap out of her.

The library aide held me by my shoulders and comforted me. “There, there, ” he said. “It’s OK. Many people have that reaction the first time they see the evidence. Calm down. It’s OK.”

The shocking part was the realization that the evidence IS there. That it IS possible to find our ancestors. That records WERE kept.

The appalling part was that, for slaves, there are NO NAMES.

I have seen the bloodlines of cows and dogs kept more meticulously than this. The American Kennel Club keeps the names of dam and sire, place of birth, a genetically documented provenance — providing these as indisputable proofs when one purchases a purebred dog. Cattle breeders keep records on stud semen and can tell you to this day which ancestral bulls sired offspring in contemporary herds.

Black people — my people — are mere cross hatches. No names. No places of birth. No family relationships.

Each person is listed as “1” — the numeral being a symbol of their solitary essence. The vestige of physical description is limited to “black” or “mulatto.” Impediments to economic value are indicated in a column for noting “deaf, dumb, blind, insane or idiotic.” That’s it. That’s all I am destined to know.

Was James Leslie the father of my GGrandfather, Tom Leslie? Was James’ female slave Tom’s mother? Or, maybe James was doing some blacksmithing at the neighboring Marrast plantation and spent some “quality” time with Tom’s mother, Harriett Morass?

Somehow, I think these records were obscured on purpose so that people like me would NEVER be able to connect the dots. Should we be able to do so, we might lay righteous blame on the perpetrators of America’s greatest shame. How else can I explain the meticulous absence of personal details for the human beings who contributed so enormously to the foundations of the American economy?

Driven by a need to know whose blood is flowing through my veins, I want to know exactly who that 3o year old black female was!

Slave Schedule - 1850 - James E. Leslie

The Three A We

26 June 2010

In my generation, there are only three family members who share the surname Leslie. In the next generation, there is but one. After that, our family name will be relegated to the archives of history.

We contemporary three are Francine, Frank and Sharon. Collectively, our generation represents the survivors of painful, historical roots in Alabama. Our fathers were born there. As children, they were rescued from there and never looked back.

Francine and Frank are the children of my uncle Frank. His brother, Arthur, was my father. Frank had two children. Arthur had one. Their older brother, “Little Bob,” had none.

Our next generation is Francita — young Frank’s daughter. Although she is now a mother, she has chosen to retain the family name. Her son bears the name of his father.

It is a good thing that Francita continues to identify herself as a Leslie because her father is not able to have any more children. Nor are we — his sister and sister/cousin — because of our ages.

Francine’s two children are named for their father. My one son is named for the man who rescued him from being a fatherless child.

The end result, and the point of this rumination, is that Francita is the last of our line. She is the sole surviving person who will bear our family name. After her, the genetic manifestation of our Leslie name will expire.

That leads me to wonder: What happens when your family name is no longer extant?

As a genealogist, I am doing my best to record the fact that we LIVED — somewhere, somehow. In the annals of history, I wish for it to be known that we were here. We made our mark. I want us — our Leslie name — to be known and revered.

It is my hope that future generations will remember that our great grandfather, Tom Leslie, and his wife, Rhoda Reeves Leslie, came out of SLAVERY. In their circumscribed circumstances, they gave birth to eight children, who gave birth to four children, who gave birth to six children, who gave birth to four. Even though our name will die, our bloodline will continue.

I pray that future generations who share our patrimony will continue our memory so that the fact that we once lived never dies.

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Family is Forever

20 June 2010

Welcome to the new Our Black Ancestry blog. We will be posting links and commentary about African American family history and related subjects that help you appreciate and learn more about your family history.

This blog is a companion to www.OurBlackAncestry.com, which is a website that offers news, tutorials, research links, stories and a marketplace for relevant books, music, films and software.

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