The Black Warrior

1 September 2010

Tuscaloosa, Alabama is the home of one of the people I have been researching for many years– Dr. John Marrast. He owned the plantation in Lowndes County from which I believe my ancestors, Tom Leslie and Rhoda Reeves Leslie, emerged from slavery.

Chief Tushka Lusha

According to an official website: “The City of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County and the Black Warrior River which runs through the City of Tuscaloosa all take their name from the Choctaw Indian Chief “Tushka Lusa” (tushka meaning “warrior”, lusa meaning “black”).  According to historical accounts, Chief Tuskaloosa was a very wise and respected leader and was of impressive physical stature standing nearly 7 feet tall.”

Dr. Marrast was definitely not as tall as Tushka Lusa. His passport application says he stood at “medium height.” However, his stature as one of the largest slaveholders in Lowndes County, Alabama is indisputable.

In 1850, Dr. Marrast owned 128 people at Lowndes County. They were surely cultivating cotton on his large plantation, spurred on by the whip of his overseer, J.B. May.  He also enslaved several more people at Tuscaloosa, where he made his home and in Mobile, where he had family connections.

I already had a great deal of documentation about the very prosperous and renowned Dr. Marrast. However, this time, I was rewarded to find a deed book with proof of his appointment to the State Banking Commission and the will of his brother, William, who was, for many years, the postmaster of Tuscaloosa.

As I review this information, I am stricken by the great injustice that was inflicted upon my ancestors as well as the Native American tribes to whom Tuscaloosa (and indeed, all of America) once belonged. The indigenous people who owned the land were brutally displaced and eradicated. The people who did the most daunting work of taming the “new frontier” — the slaves — got nothing for their toil. Their owners, John and his brother (and thousands of others), got cushy jobs with important titles and, surely, some attractive remuneration.

Some days, I just don’t know where in my heart to put all this learning. I am praying that I can transform my pain and anger into something positive for the future. Surely, the essence of healing is discerning how to empower our future by honoring our past.


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.

Gombo Party

29 August 2010

Every year for the last 10 years, the good people of Burkville, Alabama have gathered for an annual celebration of “the people’s vegetable.”

Burkville is a very small community in Lowndes County. It is just down the road from Montgomery, on the way to the county seat at Hayneville. The festival, which attracts hundreds of people on the last weekend in August, is very much like a big house party where neighbors gather to “chew the fat.” There is food, music, mule wagon rides for the children and a wonderful collection of art in Annie Mae’s Place. Every possible permutation of okra is available, from gumbo pots to pickled delicacies.

I was supposed to do a genealogy workshop, but that didn’t work out. I couldn’t compete with the soulful blues being belted out by Sonny Boy King!

By way of history, gumbo is the African name for what we call okra. It was brought to the North American continent by slave ships. Originating in what is now Ethiopia, the word is thought to derive from “quillobo,” which is the indigenous name for the okra plant in central Africa. The words “Gumbo” and “Callaloo” are often used to describe something that is mixed up. This is, no doubt, how the dish so many of us love got it’s name.

In case you didn’t know, okra has many healthful attributes.

Welcome to Burksville, Alabama

It lowers bad cholesterol and keeps the intestinal track clean, which reduces the risks of heart disease and colorectal cancer.

For those of you who turn up your nose at okra’s sliminess, I have a proven method for eliminating it. Just trim the okra above the line between the cap and the pod then soak it in lemon juice before cooking.

There are many other communities that have okra festivals, including Mobile, New Orleans and Birmingham. But the fun for me is in Burkville, which is nearest to my ancestral roots.

For more information on the festival, go to and start planning your trip for next year!

Raising The Dead

24 August 2010

I succeeded in finding the grave of James E. Leslie, the man I believe sired my great-grandfather, Tom Leslie.

Born in 1823 in North Carolina, James migrated sometime before 1850 to Lowndes County, Alabama. He operated a blacksmith shop in Hayneville and lived about 17 miles from town in the Braggs community. In 1875, he died.

The Leslie family plot is in the New Bethel cemetery on County Road 7. James’ wife, Elizabeth Farley Leslie, is there along with three of their children: Elizabeth, William and Jane. His first wife, Martha Ann Betterton, whom James married in 1848 when she was 12 years old, is no where to be found. And, unfortunately, the gravestone that covers James is overturned and so embedded in the ground, I couldn’t turn it over to read it.

Throughout the day, I tried to put myself in the mindset of a person living in 1850. Gazing upon the verdant fields of Lowndes County, it is easy to fantasize on the times. In my mind’s eye, I can see the cotton fields. I reconstruct a modest little house of white clapboard where the Leslie’s live. James is riding his horse into Hayneville, where he lives and works during the week. Elizabeth is at home, minding the children.

In the midst of all this bucolic beauty, I wonder where my relatives are? Is Tom picking cotton?

The 1850 Federal census says James was in possession of a 30 year old female slave. Was that Tom’s mother? By 1860, James was no longer a slaveholder. Did he sell her… and their son?

Clearly, there are many more mysteries to explore.

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

Road Runner

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 🙂