Brothers and Sisters

31 August 2010

Every year when I do my genealogy trek to the Southland, I am reminded of the rife injustices about which I have enormously conflicting emotions. Here is yet another issue that has been top of mind this week.

My paternal grandfather had seven siblings. My maternal grandfather had five. There are at least two dozen additional grand aunts and uncles emanating from my grandmothers. Proceeding forward to me, this generation gave birth to literally hundreds of people whom I can identify as blood relatives.

However, going back in time — back to a past generation — back to my GREAT grandparents — it is a shock to find that NONE of them appear to have brothers and sisters.

Why is that? Because they were slaves and slaves were not generally documented in human records. Their personal details and family relationships were obliterated by omission.

Before 1870, my great grandparents are listed on census forms with references only to their quantity, age, gender and color — maybe.

Although I can sometimes find the name of a mother (generally on a death certificate if the person died after 1900), I can’t find the name of a father, the deceased person’s siblings nor any children they might have had other than the one who produced me. Even on death certificates, the mothers frequently have no surnames. In death records, they are “Harriett Unknown” (along with “unknown” place of birth). Fathers are straight ahead “unknown” (no given name, surname or place of birth).

In plantation records, if you are lucky enough to find them, enslaved people will be noted variously as “Rhody’s boy,” “Old Mary” or “Little Tom.” Fathers again are non-existent.  Virtually all of them, black or white, are unnamed, unknown and unclaimed.

Even without names — or perhaps the reason why there are no names — is because enslaved people had such great economic value that Thomas Jefferson “urged slavery as an investment strategy…. There is icy clarity in his instructions to an overseer not to overwork pregnant women: ‘I consider a [slave] woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital.’”

I long to know where the descendants of all those “financial dividends” are in 2010?

There are surely people walking around in this world today who probably share some of my genes. Their great grandparents could have been the siblings of my great grandparents. But it is very unlikely that any of us will ever know one another or even surmise our relationship. Public records mitigate against our ever finding and reaching out to one another.

White people can tell you who in their family came over on the Mayflower. They can show you on paper when their ancestors got their first tract of land along with its exact dimensions. They can document marriages all the way back to the 1600s — even before there was an America — and before slavery was the economic engine of its growth.

As I proceed with my genealogical research, it is ironic that digging up the past has proven to be a most therapeutic exercise. Believing as I do that spirits never die, I am convinced that my ancestors are assuaged in knowing that they are not forgotten — even if I don’t know exactly who they are. That is how I attempt to transform my pain into productive use.

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

Sweet Home Alabama

21 August 2010

Hayneville (Lowndes County) Alabama

The signs throughout the countryside tell you to “Keep Alabama The Beautiful” and, indeed, Alabama is that … one beautiful state. It’s natural bounty includes lush green rolling hills and pastures; a multitude of lakes and rivers; healthy livestock – cows, sheep and horses — grazing the land. Even though the corn fields this year are burnt from heat and drought, there is an abundance of budding cotton.

I spent the day touring the back roads of Lowndes County, the birthplace of my great-grandfather, Tom Leslie. According to the records I have, Tom was born in this place sometime around 1850. My father told me he left slavery with Rhoda Reeves, who later became his wife and the mother of his children, which included my grandfather, Robert Leslie. Tom died in 1939 in Montgomery, which is about 20 miles from Hayneville, the county seat.

As I drove through the town square in Hayneville, I saw a weathered old man sitting under a canopy. His pick-up truck was parked nearby, loaded with big bags of sweet potatoes. He was selling but the bags were too big for me to buy and put to good use (sigh). Further on, my nose was tantalized by the pungent smell of watermelon permeating the air.

On a lark, I stopped for lunch as soon as I noticed the ”Deerwoods BBQ” restaurant, just off the square. Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised to find an African American man at the counter, obviously the owner. He presided over a soulfood buffet that whetted my appetite beyond control. His pleasant repartee made me feel right at home.

I sat down to enjoy a plate of fried chicken wings, butter beans cooked with okra over fluffy white rice; a side of candied sweet potatoes and cornbread muffins. I washed it all down with a big glass of iced sweet tea. As I glanced around the dining room, I couldn’t help but appreciate the sign that read “Bless All Who Enter,” feeling supremely blessed to have found such a tasty repast in such a lovely place so rife with familial ties and historical significance.

Road Dog

19 August 2010

This is Nemo. He is my road dog.

As I pack up the car and prepare to get on the the road for the first leg of my genealogy adventure, Nemo senses the excitement in the air. He’s ready to roll — as am I.

First stop is Clarksville Tennessee where we will overnight with fellow genealogy buff, Lawson Mabry. The Mabry family I am visiting are distantly related to my Leslie ancestors. They provided numerous historical documents that have contributed greatly to my work.

It’s a six hour drive to Clarksville. That’s almost halfway to my final destination in Alabama.

I expect that Nemo will be, as he always is, patient and calm. He will recline in his cushy bed, strategically positioned on the passenger seat. We will stop every couple of hours to hydrate and potty. Hopefully, I won’t bore him with my random chatter :)

Nemo... Road Dog Extraordinaire

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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