BACK ROADS

2 September 2014

Bettie WARFE/GAVIN

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 rended by the visceral realization of the exigencies of the lives 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?

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10 Responses to “BACK ROADS”

  1. jeania said

    I love reading your post and finding someone else with Lowndes County roots. Your passion for researching your history is wonderful.
    Each time I go to Lowndes County, Alabama, I learn something new about the county history and my family history. I have also gotten acquainted with many of the Back Roads. My cousins have taught me many of the shortcuts and the names of the “neighborhoods” in the county.
    I have left my boots in my cousin’s garage for my next trip
    , but I must bring a whisk broom because many of the headstones in the cemeteries are covered with leaves, grass or dirt.

  2. sylviawonglewis said

    Sharon, You are a brave soul. Your ancestor’s testimony breaks my heart.

  3. I love your brave heart Sharon. I know the truths you are uncovering are hard and sometimes it seems like what is it for? if the world hasn’t changed much, Black people are still suffering. I just want you to know it makes me feel incredibly proud to be Black and still have any kind of love in my heart and that makes me feel strong and that heals me.
    And for You Sharon, what a legacy you are leaving for your grandchildren and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren with a path that leads straight back to Bette Warfe. I can’t help but feel that you telling Her truth will help them tell theirs one day. One day when you are someone’s ancestor I know that you will be celebrated for the truths you uncovered. Keep going.

  4. I love your brave heart Sharon. I know the truths you are uncovering are hard and sometimes it seems like what is it for? if the world hasn’t changed much, Black people are still suffering. I just want you to know it makes me feel incredibly proud to be Black and still have any kind of love in my heart and that makes me feel strong and that heals me.
    And for You Sharon, what a legacy you are leaving for you’re grandchildren and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren with a path that leads straight back to Bette Warfe. I can’t help but feel that you telling Her truth will help them tell theirs one day. One day when you are someone’s ancestor I know that you will be celebrated for the truths you uncovered. Keep going.

  5. jfparker14 said

    Thank you Karen for the name of DuBois’s novel. I was wanting to read that “report”, Amazing.

  6. Christina said

    “Convicted by getting children by my master.” Sad realities. I was reading the narratives of Henry Bibb and William Brown and both expressed the heartache of their mothers and wives having to bear the children of their masters and having no control or no right to protect them.

  7. I’d like to add this note: . In 1911, the determined and creative Du Bois rewrote the censored report as The Quest of the Silver Fleece, a magnificent novel.

  8. Sharon, this is fascinating but painful material. You mention Lowndes County, Alabama. I’ll include an excerpt from my book “The Family Tree: A Kinship Lynching in Jim Crow Georgia,” to be published in April 2015:

    (W.E.B.)Dubois had recently completed a massive U.S. Bureau of Labor study of “the distribution of labor, the relation of landlord and tenant, the political organization and the family life and the distribution of the population” in Lowndes County, Alabama, 100 miles from Harris (County, Ga.). He’d worked on this for a year, seen several of his black agents driven out with shotguns, interviewed thousands of farmers of both races, studied every land record and every justice court case since 1850, and done what no one had dared to do before: he’d taken the machine apart and his study would show how it worked, right down to the last nut and bolt.

    Two white agents had conducted intensive confidential interviews that would show the sex relations among black and white, as well as the political dynamics that drove labor relations, land ownership, and the economy and wrapped black peoples’ lives in barbed wire.

    This had never been done and the report would never see daylight. Just before Baker came to town Du Bois had learned that his report had “disappeared” within the Labor Bureau. He’d gone to Washington to fight for its release and been told it “touched on political matters.” It was a piece of dynamite, of course, which when lobbed into Congress, would certainly drive deep fissures into the white supremacist foundation so carefully constructed since the War.

    Eight years earlier, a similar, though less scientific, report Du Bois wrote on commission for McClure’s magazine had met the same fate.

    The information about your ancestor’s conviction and incarceration for “getting children by my master” is astounding. I did 20 years of court records research in Georgia and never found such a thing. Could you send me more detail on this, please?

  9. jfparker14 said

    Sharon, you have so much courage. And so did your amazing ancestress, standing there in front of a judge, saying, “Yes sir, I couldn’t help it.” Heartbreaking. Such extraordinary documentation. oh lord. Thank you for your trip, thank you for finding this, thank you for writing this. I am almost in tears. She is speaking truth, to power; to that white judge. That white privileged judge.
    And I love your description of your jeep.

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