15 September 2013
Delving into the past is not for the faint hearted… especially when your ancestors were enslaved.
I read the stories of the “grand men and women who made America great” and cringe at the thought of how their riches and acclaim were “achieved’ by crushing the backs and spirits of “others” = MY PEOPLE…. stalked and captured in Africa and transported to America in the holds of slave ships, destined for a life of nothing — other than unrelenting work, service to a “master” and erasure of their identity… transformed into people of NO nation, NO history and diminished prospects ever after.
There are days when I feel SO DEPRESSED upon the discovery of yet another abominable truth, the facts of which feed my fury about the unfathomably unjust past.The more I learn, the more compelling becomes my desire to know even MORE… fueling the frenzy of my discontent. In my more enlightened state — I yearn to integrate what I learn into making myself a better person — thus ascribing the overflow of pain into something positive.
On my worst days, I hear the voice of Bettie Warfe (my maternal great great grandmother), who bore 17 children with the nephew of her master. Surely these children whose genes I share could not have been born of “love” in the context of times in which NO woman (especially an enslaved black “consort”) could ever say “NO.”
My heart recoils at the story of Rhody Reeves Leslie (my paternal great grandmother) who cries out as an infant, slung against a wall by the enraged wife of her white master/father and then banished/sold with her mother to a fate unknown.
My mind’s eye sees Tom Leslie (my paternal great grandfather) face down a sheriff in Montgomery, Alabama with his shotgun — welcoming death rather than sacrifice his grandchildren (my father) to the whims of white supremacy.
I cringe at the thought of Owen Gavin (my great uncle) witnessing his daughter violated by “Knight riders” determined to drive his family from the small plot of land he managed to occupy after fleeing Mississippi to Oklahoma in the hope of a better life.
I see my grandfather, Louie Nicholson, terrified to his core as his uncle was lynched in Noxubee County, Mississippi for no apparent reason other than the fact of his blackness.
I hurt with the knowledge of my mother’s distress as she was beaten and gang raped by men who knew they would not face prosecution because she was black as night but not at sight.
As the iconic Mississippi writer William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It is this past that continues to haunt a present in which Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin… and countless others victims of the American myth… continue to suffer the detritus of ignorance and misguided delusions.
LAWD… help me transform my trauma into triumph!!!
16 June 2013
Last year, I connected with the white descendant of a man I believed fathered my black great grandfather. We met in cyberspace when Neil LESLIE found the photo I posted of his ancestor’s gravestone on a genealogy website.
When I met Neil, I was ecstatic. After years of research, I hoped I would finally fulfill the longing that has haunted me for 30+ years. Over many months, Neil and I developed a lively online relationship during which I met his siblings and collaborated on research techniques to track our presumed shared ancestor.
My genealogical target was James E. LESLIE (1823-1875) — a blacksmith from Iredell, North Carolina who migrated to Lowndes County, Alabama in the 1840s and owned a blacksmith shop on the Hayneville town square. My research had narrowed James LESLIE down to the right man in the right place at the right time with the right occupation + the right surname. He was a member of the same Baptist church as the man whom I surmised (based on estate records) owned my ancestor, Tom LESLIE, and his mother Harriett MORASS — plus, maybe, his wife Rhoda REEVES and her mother Easter REEVES. The cherry on top was the fact that Tom was only one of two black people in multiple Lowndes County censuses with the LESLIE surname.
In the end, this accumulation of logic was just too good to be true.
A couple of months ago, Neil agreed to take a DNA test to compare against the results for my first cousin, Frank LESLIE, the only living direct male in my LESLIE line. Both did 67 marker tests on FamilyTreeDNA.
When the results came back, Frank was one point off on each of 12 markers against 31 allelles. (I could almost hear Neil breathing a big sigh of relief when it took him off the hook for something he felt pretty bad about.)
“Gee, I’m not sure what to say right now. I know this must be a terrible disappointment for you. I am disappointed too. I was expecting that the DNA tests would confirm your theories and our relationship — but I have to be honest and say that I’m also relieved. I’m relieved that it appears my great-great grandfather wasn’t so much of a scoundrel that he fathered a child with a woman he enslaved and then denied paternity. I don’t know—you may think he’s still a scoundrel because he enslaved other human beings and fought for a government that defended that enslavement.”
“Yes, I still think James — and most other white people (especially men) of the time were greedy, misguided and immoral to (1) wipe out the indigenous population, (2) enslave people to build their stolen country and (3) create the myth of white superiority.”
We concluded our discussion with this thought from Neil:
“I suppose we all want to believe that all of our ancestors were fine and noble people—just like we are! The truth, of course, is a lot more complex. As individuals, we have elements of the saint, the sinner, and the scoundrel within us, and our families do too. One thing I have often thought about since I began this process of finding out about my family is the idea that we are more than our genetics. If it comes to light that one of my ancestors did some morally questionable or even terrible things, I do not have to do the same thing. I can choose to do something different and something better. if I face up to the ugly parts of my family’s history honestly, maybe I can help future generations of Leslies avoid making the same mistakes.”
I had to agree and opined:
“YES, we are more than our genetics and we do have the ability to change the course of the future by being responsible people who adhere to high moral principles and work actively to improve society.”
Tom LESLIE always told his children he was “Portuguese and Indian” — and, in the final analysis, there is no doubt that his father was WHITE … the DNA trail shows 96% Scottish. His wife, Rhoda REEVES LESLIE also had a white father, as did ancestors on my maternal side. But WHO was Tom’s father? Why did he choose LESLIE as his surname?
I thought of the possibility that maybe it was Rhoda who was the child of James LESLIE. He was listed on the 1850 slave schedule with one female slave (age 30) and in 1855 with three slaves (no ages). My family story says the wife of Rhoda’s father was so incensed by her very being that she tried to kill the child by throwing her against a wall, giving her a concussion.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a direct line female to test in furtherance of this hypothesis. And, in any case, my meanderings amount to nothing more than fanciful guessing. All we have as African American slave descendants are discriminate ticks on census schedules that obscure and corrupt our origins (most especially our patrimony). For most of us, the facts will never be proven. In general, all white man had access at will to all enslaved women. The surviving dearth of records uphold the subterfuge.
It is beyond disappointing to wash 30 years of research down the drain. I am trying hard to digest the disappointment and not let it lead me back to the extreme anger I feel over historic white malfeasance and being thrust back into the netherworld of NEVER being able to KNOW my family origins.
A luta coninua.
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.
26 May 2013
As I spent my day pondering the meaning of Memorial Day, and its relevance to genealogy, I was led to an account of how the day we now celebrate had it’s genesis in the African American community as a celebration of the end of the Civil War which resulted in the Emancipation of four million people from slavery. That commemoration has evolved to include all casualties of all wars from the Civil War forward.
In the course of my research, I found an account by Historian David Blight, associate professor of history at Connecticut College, who reports:
African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
Read the entire article: http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/14684833-the-black-roots-of-memorial-day
My personal memories of war are limited to second hand tales of WWII shared by my mother, her brother who served and their contemporaries.
The benchmark war of my generation was in Vietnam. I remember well going to the train station almost every week with friends who had been drafted. Many of them never came back — or returned irrevocably damaged (physically and/or mentally) from the experience.
It is hard to believe that, during this time — when adored world boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to serve — I was a member of my high school ROTC. I achieved the rank of Major, but a military career? No way.
I shared Ali’s feelings when he said:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end…. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
Contemplation of all this history inspired me to wonder how many people in my family tree served in the military. Having never tried to connect the dots before, I was surprised at how many I found.
In a world where more than 100 wars are currently in progress, I have so many thoughts about the subject — it’s horror and futility. Everyone who serves does so with honor, no matter how unjust the war. Putting one’s life on the line (for any reason) is a sacrifice of immeasurable proportion. My heart breaks for the families who endure the loss of loved ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice and for the soldiers who return and are treated so callously by the Veteran’s Administration and other agencies of government.
My great hope is that war will someday (soon) become obsolete — and I don’t mean just the act of sending people off to fight, but the act of waging war of any kind, for any reason.
With that in mind, here is my family honor roll:
Louis NICHOLSON (my mother’s father) said he spent “a few weeks” in service during WWI and I remember the .38 revolver he proudly showed as a souvenir. I have never found a record of his service although I have his draft registration card from 1917, when the corners were torn off to indicate race.
Walter Robert NICHOLSON (his brother) served with distinction in WWI on the battlefields of France. When he returned home, many American cities were in flames from race riots. He died a cruel death in a state mental hospital from the effects of gas poisoning in 1929.
Louis NICHOLSON, Jr. (my mother’s brother) served in the Navy during WWII. Because of his appearance, he was treated like a white man, which came with the dubious privilege of being entrusted with superior weaponry. He jokingly told us that he would have much preferred being treated as black so he could work in the kitchen instead of shooting people. I am able to relive his experience from the many letters he and my mother shared while he was in service.
Eugene Owen GAVIN (cousin) served in WWI in France and was awarded a Purple Heart. His service was ironic in that, some years before the war, his family had been driven off of their land by “night riders” in OK in obvious rebuke of their civil rights.
Eugene Victor GAVIN (cousin), a registered Communist, was a Merchant Marine and an early volunteer in the Spanish American War, where he served in the “mixed” Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Assigned to a Spanish formation, he was severely wounded and lost an eye.
His brother, Robert Owen GAVIN served in this same brigade as a medic. He disappeared in 1938 “in combat against the enemy.”
Robert LESLIE (my father’s brother) enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Ft. Huachuka AZ, famous as the headquarters of the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers). After a year, he was dismissed as “unable to adapt to service” for reasons I have yet to discover.
Ulysses Simpson LESLIE (my father’s uncle) This son of parents who were enslaved in AL served in WWI. I never met him in person and have no details.
Nathaniel McNAIR (cousin) served in WWI. I know absolutely nothing about him other than the photo of him in his uniform, which is at the head of this blog post.
Francine Evelyn LESLIE (my first cousin) was a WAVE. She fled her abusive father by enlisting in the Navy and never experienced combat. Her military service enabled her to be educated as a nurse, a career from which she recently retired.
I don’t have enough details to shout out Paul FARMER (US Army), Frederick WILLIAMSON (USAF) and Charles LITTLE (USN) — but their service is not forgotten.
And then, there are others I have a hard time “honoring” — the white men of the GAVIN family of Noxubee County, MS. More than 10 served in the Confederate Army and mostly survived. At least two of them (Gabriel and Robert Lewis) had black “families” back on the plantation and I will never comprehend how they lived with that hypocrisy.
Perhaps this egregious service can be tempered by knowing that my white grandmother’s grandfather Daniel WAYMOTH served on the Union side from Indiana. Severely wounded in an accident unrelated to combat, he spent many painful years fighting for a pension that was posthumously awarded to his widow. His family disowned my grandmother when she married a black man in Chicago in 1926.
I will update my list again next year, but until then, think about this:
16 May 2013
The OBA Indiegogo campaign just ended. Regrettably, we fell far short of achieving our goal of $50,000 to jumpstart the evolution of Our Black Ancestry into a subscriber based destination for African Americans seeking to discover ancestral roots in slavery.
To say that I am disappointed would be an understatement…. I thought that — surely — with 6000+ website hits per month and 1700+ souls on OBA Facebook pages, we would raise far in excess of what we did. (Imagine… if only all of those hits/members had contributed $25 each, we would have exceeded our financial goal four-fold = $200,000.)
I can’t help but reference the fact that IndieGoGo has served over 100,000 projects in 196 countries with successful projects ranging from the sublime (building housing, schools and wells) to the ridiculous (replacing somebody’s tooth).
I don’t want to engage in a “sour grapes” diatribe, but I do want to point out how mystified I am that the OBA campaign achieved such dismal results. Did we write our pitch wrong? Did we overestimate the level of interest? Did we underestimate the effect of a bad economy on people’s ability to contribute to meaningful causes? Or is genealogy just not a popular enough subject in the African American community? Are we satisfied with the existing “mega-providers” and just don’t care about supporting our own? (If you have an answer, I would really like to hear it.)
The GOOD NEWS is that the work of OBA will NOT STOP.
To the 29 people who contributed to our campaign …. We THANK YOU will all our hearts.
We will use the $1001 we raised to pay hosting fees to the service provider of the OBA website for another year.
Beyond that, we are still solid with a partner who will digitize family records at no cost. (The first batch — HAIRSTON plantation ledgers — will be sent to them in a couple of weeks.) We also have a major supporter who initially promised to match public donations but has agreed (in spite of our dismal results) to move forward in funding the creation of a prototype site.
In the final analysis, I remain convinced in my heart that OBA’s work is blessed by the ancestors. As the founder and webmaster, I will never stop working to empower our future by honoring our past — discovering the dreamers who dreamed a better world for you and me.
A luta continua.
1 May 2013
GUEST BLOG by Diana Roman
I can still smell the musty pages of one of my mother’s most cherished possessions — the family bibles. They were among the few items she had left from a crumbled dynasty. On the frontal pages, the matriarch of the time would chronicle the lives of family members after their passing. (The Hairston family seemed to have a regular practice of recording endless details of their lives.)
I knew my mother, Sallie Staples Hunt Hairston, was born in the countryside of Virginia, and I knew her family had a long-standing history as the earliest settlers in Pittsylvania County. It was only recently that I learned the full scope of what the Hairston dynasty was and how it derived its wealth.
My ancestors were among the wealthiest people of their time — not because they had the most money in the bank, but because they owned the most slaves in American history. The sheer size and scope of their “business” boggles my mind. The Hairston family owned 42 plantations in three states and enslaved more than 10,000 people.
I try to imagine “upbeat” scenarios of day-to-day plantation life and how my ancestors surely must have been “good” to their slaves — not like all the other “mean” slave owners. But is there really such a thing as a benevolent master?
Five generations later, I struggle to comprehend what happened and how I feel in my heart to be connected to ancestors who did something I so totally abhor.
In the final analysis, l can’t deny my connection, but what that engenders for me is a burning desire to do something “right.” I long to “reconcile” this inheritance so my children can inherit a different legacy.
I recently began to wonder if my ancestors chronicled the lives of their slaves with as much meticulous detail as they did themselves. Amazingly, I found that they did. They recorded all of the marriages, deaths and births of the 10,000+ people they enslaved in ledgers that span a 200 year period of history.
Once I got over the ugliness, I realized that these ledgers are a gold mine of genealogy. While the Hairston family was among the biggest sinners of slavery, their wealth allowed them the luxury of rarely selling slaves; which means they rarely broke up families. Their ledgers provide documentation that can help so many contemporary African American descendants discover their relationships – to people past and present.
I realize that the data in these ledgers may bring initial sadness to those descended from the people the Hairstons enslaved. But I am hoping researchers will take faith in a lingering personal respect and admiration for those ancestors who were strong enough to endure their predicament and continue against all odds to embrace the dream of a better life for their children – just as I do for my own.
Today, if you were to visit the land where the grand old mansion “Oak Hill” used to be, you would find an overgrown yard and a pile of bricks. My mother never lived in the big old house, but rather in a makeshift log cabin built to house her family temporarily until the matriarch, her grandmother, died. I can’t help but consider it a blessing that she never lived the life she dreamed, of being heiress to a mansion built on the proceeds of slavery. Rather, she grew up a poor country girl in the shadows of shame.
It is my sincerest hope that my generation can reconcile the family “issue” of slavery. I am on a mission to make the contents of the Hairston ledgers available online – through Our Black Ancestry. This is a history that belongs to us all. It is yours and mine; black and white; slave holder and enslaved. We have to name it and claim it in order to move forward.EVERYONE deserves to know from whence they came and it is my deepest desire to bring honor and respect to the lives of the people the Hairston family might have held in physical bondage but whose souls they never truly enslaved.
14 April 2013
I have long dreamed of being able to make a MAJOR contribution to the world of genealogy for African Americans. From the first day I realized how truly hard it is to uncover our roots in slavery (which is where the ancestral past for 90% of contemporary African Americans is buried), I have yearned to find my own way and to help others negotiate their path through this circuitous and brambled road to the past.
On my own behalf, I longed to discover the facts about my ancestors whose children departed the onus of slavery in Alabama and Mississippi — making a way out of no way as they recreated their destinies in the “promised land” of Chicago. I have since found the NAMES of 12 of my ancestors, associated with an awareness that there are many more who will likely remain “buried in the past.”
In my quest, I remember well the momentous day in the reading room of the Alabama Department of Archives and History when, after days of research, I FINALLY found a slave schedule for the white man whom I believe to be the father of my paternal great grandfather. I sat there in front of a microfilm reader, stunned in disbelief with tears in my eyes — stricken to my core as I confronted the FACT that there were NO NAMES … only an assaulting reference to to the owner. He WAS named, along with a list of the ages and genders of his “possessions”… My forbears were summarily reduced from being PEOPLE to being ticks on a slave schedule. At the very moment my discovery incited a searing pain that coursed through my my entire body, a white woman sitting next to me exclaimed with JOY, having found the NAMES and DETAILS of HER ancestors.
My reaction was instantaneous and visceral … I felt an almost overwhelming desire to slap the crap out of the woman next to me — blinded by the resonance of her joy juxtaposed against my pain. At that moment, it became painfully clear that meticulous white record keepers had preserved THEIR records but not OURS. (Which is one reason for the name of this website/blog = OUR Black Ancestry.)
Sensing my alarm, the man who worked for the archives (a black man) put his hand on my shoulder and tried to comfort me. He said “We all feel that way…the first time — I see it all the time…”
Indeed we do and well we should.
As all of us who are dedicated to the quest to discern “from whence we came” are painfully aware of how EXTREMELY difficult it is to achieve our goal — to discover the dreamers who endured the brutal experience of slavery and yet held on to dreams of a different life… a dream of what their progeny might be today. It is only dogged pursuit that keeps us going… searching relentlessly for names in wills, deeds and family records… hoping against hope to find answers and to give honour to those who were deprived of their humanity as they built the economy of the western world.
In our quest, there comes a day when each and every one of us hits that proverbial “brick wall” — the census of 1870 — the first “legal” record that acknowledged black people as PEOPLE… with surnames, ages, birthplaces and … families…. connections that are vital to knowing who we are.
In 2007, I built the Our Black Ancestry website in the hope that — one day — I would find an answer… for me and many others. For all these years, I have financed Our Black Ancestry out of my pocket. But, in order to evolve into the site I want Our Black Ancestry to be… I have to build it into a business — one that pays for the expertise, records and technology that will transform my dream into reality.
Today, I think I might have FINALLY found the route that can make my dream come true.
My goal is to build a one-stop repository that leads African Americans to their enslaved ancestors. Visitors to the renewed OBA portal will be able to search, see and download documents that NAME and claim our ancestors, engage in a social network based in the best that technology has to offer… share our family trees… make connections with living relatives, plan family reunions… post photos and do so much more.
To this end, I recently launched a campaign on Indiegogo to raise a$50,000 to make my dream (and the dreams of my ancestors) come true. (Here is a link to the campaign: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/our-black-ancestry )
I am hoping that ALL people — black and white — will appreciate how much a repository like this will mean to MILLIONS of people like me who long to know…
Here are photos of my three of my ancestors who were enslaved. In spite of my bounty, I long to know MORE.
These are my people who DREAMED a better world. Help me find yours and give them the honour they deserve.
6 December 2012
Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.
My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.
Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.
Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians 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 killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.
When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.
Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”
When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.
It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.
I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.
That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.
Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.
These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him to document an approach to racial healing.
My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelery are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.
In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.
In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.
When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.
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!
13 August 2012
I hit the jackpot in the last few weeks in finding lost relatives. It seems like all of a sudden people are coming out of the woodwork to claim the ancestors whose lives I have so painstakingly reconstructed over the last 30 years. I must have finally achieved critical mass in putting enough online so that I can be found. Or maybe it is the ancestral spirits who have led us to reunion.
First, there is Neil LESLIE. He wrote to me after seeing a photograph of his great grandfather’s gravestone on a LESLIE family tree I loaded online some years ago. I believe (strongly and with little doubt) that he and I share an ancestor; only Neil’s line is white and mine is black. His is “legitimate” — with plenty of documents to prove it. Mine can never be substantiated unless Neil takes a DNA test to see if he matches the last surviving male in my LESLIE line. Neil’s thoughtful response to the information I provided to back up the photo was surprisingly sanguine:
“The upshot of all of this, at least for me, is that I may have African American relations I knew nothing about, a possibility that I (perhaps naively) had never considered. For much of the South’s history, clandestine and unacknowledged interracial sexual unions (whether consensual or forced) and children resulting from those unions were far more common than many people, white or black, were willing to admit. I knew this in an abstract, intellectual way from taking college courses in race relations and the history of the South, but there is a huge difference between understanding something as an abstract concept and seeing how it could affect the history of your own family. I am still trying to process both my emotional reaction to this possibility and the evidence for it that Sharon Leslie Morgan has shared with me thus far. We both want to continue the conversation and gather and interpret more evidence, if it can be found.”
Then, there is Lisa GAVIN. She found my online GAVIN family tree, recognized familiar names and contacted me. Her great grandfather and my great grandmother were siblings (no doubt about it; supported with many documents). She never knew of her African American ancestry but was inspired to consider the possibility as she proceeded to unravel secrets about the obscurity of her family origins. Her immediate ancestors always lived as white people. Mine did not even attempt to. This is ironic since we both grew up in or near Chicago. We knew her family existed even though we didn’t know their names. They knew nothing of us, other than one shared relative who they viewed as white and we viewed as black.
Here is what Lisa has to say:
“I, like Neil, am still trying to process all this on an emotional level. It hurts my heart to think that color may have kept us all apart when we lived so close. Now that I know of all this family I’m excited to continue to build relationships and bridge a long overdue gap. I pray that God will continue to bless you for all your painstaking work as you have blessed us by freely sharing it.”
My recent findings lead me to think even more deeply about the “why” of the work I do. Genealogy is how I fulfill the Our Black Ancestry slogan of “empowering our future by honoring our past.” And here I am experiencing that goal on a very personal level.
When I first started researching, I only wanted to have a better sense of myself: who I am and where I come from; as well as to build a legacy to leave for my offspring so they would not have to ask these questions. They would be secure in knowledge of themselves and have a sense of pride in appreciating their roots in slavery and the strength it took to survive its horrific physical and psychological bonds. In the process, I did not seek out nor expect to find lost relatives — especially not ones who have lived lives defined by myth. They have been presented to me as a by-product of my researching and writing the stories of those who must not be forgotten. I have been delivered to them as a voice of truth.
Now I need to know: Just what is it — exactly — that must be remembered? Is it the fact that slavery and subsequent social mores tore families apart? It is the reality that we are still so “colored” in our beliefs about one another? Is it that “one drop” does not a person make? Or is it that knowledge of our past will help us transcend the legacy of white supremacy and the unrelenting onslaught of black subjugation?