7 November 2015
Each year as the anniversary of my mother’s passing approaches, my mind inevitably turns to contemplation of my own demise. My thoughts are especially poignant this year because it will be the tenth time I will celebrate winter holidays without her. Our last Thanksgiving was on the 25th of November 2005. Three days later, she was gone… forever.
One of the ways I keep her memory alive is through family genealogical research. After being estranged for many years as I globetrotted from America to South Africa and France, I succumbed to filial responsibility by returning home to Chicago to care for her. Ravaged by heart disease, diabetes, and encroaching Altzheimer’s, she lived with me for the last two years of her life. Our heart-to-heart talks not only soothed the breach between us but gave me invaluable information about our shared ancestors. The grains of fact distilled from her stories enabled me to fully reconstruct a family tree that now has more than a thousand members. Her stories provided insights into the people that interacted to produce the she that she was and the me that I am today.
- Jennie WAYMOTH, her white mother, was disowned by her family for marrying my African American grandfather in 1926. She is the one who presciently named my mother Delores, the Spanish word for “sorrow”, when she was born in May, five months before the global economic debacle of 1929.
- Ella GAVIN, her grandmother, was left with six hungry mouths to feed when her husband, Wash NICHOLSON, died of yellow jaundice in Mississippi in 1907. Her second husband, William REED, a Jamaican immigrant, was murdered by her nephew in Chicago in 1924. My mother was 10 years old when she died. She recalled a vision of Ella standing at her bedside soon after she departed in 1939.
- Bettie WARFE, her great grandmother (whom my mother called Bettie WOLF), was seized from her mother and taken from Virginia to Mississippi as a nine year old child. She subsequently had 17 children with the nephew of her slaveholder. The wild goose chase that led me from WOLF to WARFE was daunting to say the least. My mother thought she was Choctaw, which proved to be not true; her origins were in East Africa.
- Alsey OWEN, her GG grandmother, and Mary OWEN, her GGG grandmother, were not discovered until after my mother was encapsulated in the cremation urn that takes pride of place on a bookshelf in the home office in which I work every day. She is on a separate shelf from my father’s urn because of her caution that I not put her ashes too close to his lest I awake and find them both spewn all over the floor.
Like my mother, I have made conscious prearrangements for my impending transition. I want to be cremated and I want my son to keep ALL of us – me, my mother and my father — in a place where he can see us each day and REMEMBER from whence we/he came. I will be watching to make sure he does
As American author Bret Harte said: “We begin to die as soon as we are born, and the end is linked to the beginning.” Furthering from that thought, I believe it is the days, months, and years between those two monumental events that REALLY matter.
What I am doing in the incremental time between the “now and then” is promote the resonance I encapsulated in the Our Black Ancestry motto when it was founded in 2007: “We empower our future by honoring our past.”
A Sanskrit proverb says: “…today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”
Do you hear me?
16 October 2015
As I wander the country in search of my roots, I can’t help but be awed by the sight of massive antebellum mansions in almost every town I visit (North and South). The houses are incredibly beautiful. The history is not.
Perhaps you have noticed them too? It is hard to miss massive white edifices with wrap-around verandas and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, often adorned with neoclassical Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian columns. Obviously, the original owners, flush with wealth, took great pride in showcasing the prosperity my ancestors produced. Many of their properties have been meticulously restored to previous glory. Tour guides often make a point of telling me everything about the architecture but little (or nothing) about the outbuildings that REALLY interest me. These are the cook houses and slave quarters, which have mostly been demolished.
When I encounter these edifices, my mind’s eye reverts to the distant past. It is a past during which my ancestors, dressed in finery that belied their status as slaves, served mint juleps to “Massa” as he reclined in a plantation chair on the veranda, enjoying the breeze. Little “pickneys” (children under six years old) waved fans to keep him cool in the summer heat as they wiped sweat from their eyes wondering when they might sit down. Their mothers and fathers (except maybe the reprobate father sitting in the plantation chair) were in the fields picking cotton, praying for dusk. In the darkness, there might have been a grand dinner party. Massa’s wife would have presided, dressed in a fine silk hoopskirt, as “servants” dished out culinary delicacies that started with an appetizer of corn soup and ended with hand churned vanilla ice cream and cake. Once again, pickneys would be standing alert, pulling the cord of a punkhah fan as dinner guests enjoyed their meal.
Seeing these pictures in my brain, one would think I would NEVER enter a house such as this. Why would I want to revisit an icon of such horrific import? Yet, the lesson embodied in my mental image is one I dare not ignore.
In gathering material to write my book (Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade), one of my goals was to sleep in “Miss Ann’s bed.” I wanted to channel how it could be possible to sleep peacefully in a big, cushy, feather bed while black slaves toiled outside my window, or in distant fields, creating the wealth that made my lifestyle possible. As I later wrote, I wanted to know “what the hell was going on in the heads of the white people who lived in the mansions – how they could look out over their fields with those black people…. Pulling cotton sacks and feel okay with themselves.”
My mission was best accomplished in Natchez, Mississippi in 2011. It was there that I spent a night at Linden House, the ancestral home of the Connor family. (There are Connors in my family tree, although I have no idea if they may be related to the Connors whose descendants continue to own this house.) The doorway of my overnight adventure was featured in the film “Gone With the Wind.” After sleeping there, I wrote: “My relief has much to do with confronting an icon of history – going to the scene of the crime and emerging unscathed.”
That comment is not entirely true. My psyche was scathed by a visceral realization that things were even worse than I ever imagined. I understood “cognitive dissonance” in a whole new way. It was a vice that engendered traumatic wounds that ensuing history has amplified rather than healed.
This year, when I made my annual genealogical pilgrimage to Noxubee County, Mississippi, I met a man who recently bought a “white elephant” (pun intended) – a huge 17 room mansion built in 1852 and successively owned by more than one major slaveholder. The new owner, an idealistic young man from California, plans to restore the house to its former glory (physically) but also has ambitions of imbuing his possession with a new legacy that has profound spiritual implications. As he told me: “Your research leaves me with a heavy heart. The fact that the previous owners of my house owned slaves is both disgusting and saddening.” He hopes to find a way to honor the black people who both built the house and made the finances of its construction possible. I am wishing him well because even I, the lady with lots of answers, has no idea how this might be accomplished.
The end point is that we… contemporary American people… black and white… MUST confront our history… in ALL of its ugliness. If we don’t do that, we are doomed to live in a netherworld where matters of race and its attendant realities will NEVER be addressed, much less solved.
Let’s all dig up those family trees and plant new seeds!
3 May 2015
Mother’s day is coming. Thoughts of my beloved mother are heavy on my mind.
My mother was born in May 1929. My sister was born on Mother’s Day in 1962. My first grandchild was born on Mother’s Day in 2008. There is a lot to celebrate!
The best I can do to honor my mommy — and the progeny who came after — is to share the obituary I wrote when she surrendered her soul:
Delores Marie Nicholson was born in Chicago, IL on May 28, 1929 — the second of four children brought into this world by Louis Bell Nicholson and Jeanette Marie Waymoth.
Louis, Jr., Delores Marie, Irving Ray and Janet Elsie were raised in the throes of depression and war. The hardships they experienced, tempered by the profound love their parents provided, kept them close all of their lives and helped them mature into resourceful and resilient adults (with a wry sense of humor).
Because of her beauty, Delores was nicknamed “Blossom” by her friends. To her siblings, she was known as “Sister.”
Delores married Arthur Leslie of Montgomery, AL in 1946. One daughter, Sharon Antonia, was born to that union in 1951.
On her birthday in 1957, Delores married Navel Leonard of McComb, MS. In 1962, a second daughter, Lisa Janine, graced her life.
Delores was imbued with an irrepressible spirit and enjoyed life to its fullest. She was totally committed to her family, especially her four grandchildren: Vincent Scott; her namesake Delores Marie; Nicholas DeAngelo and Christian Antonio.
After many years of debilitating health challenges, Delores finally succumbed to congestive heart failure and related maladies on November 28, 2005.
Her transformation was extraordinary in its peacefulness, grace and dignity. She passed softly, with no pain — surrounded by family, who gathered around her at the hospice for an entire day and evening of praying…singing…laughing…crying…reminiscing. Everyone spent a few personal moments speaking those last few words one doesn’t usually get to say — directly from their hearts to her ears.
Sometime after midnight, she surrendered her soul.
Today, I think of the song my grandmother (my mother’s mother) used to sing to us children.
PRAISES DUE to our ancestors… without them, we would not BE…
29 April 2015
GUEST POST by Diana Roman – President, Our Black Ancestry Foundation
“There, but for the grace of God, go I.” ~ John Bradford
My mother used to say that phrase all the time. In fact it’s engraved on her headstone. As an adult, I now realize she was trying to teach me about empathy.
Few people can empathize more with Ben Affleck than me. Why? Because I am descended from a family that is said to have owned the most slaves in American history. Over a 200 year period, my ancestors enslaved more than 10,000 people on 43 plantations in three states. I first discovered this family history about 10 years ago and remain in horrified awe of the size and scope of the family “business.” Am I responsible for their behavior? Not at all. But I am accountable to the legacy of what they did. I inherit their story and can either choose to ignore it or to use it to create something positive.
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” ~ Brené Brown
Everyone is focused on shaming Ben Affleck for causing his story to be edited for PBS and later rationalizing his request by saying he was embarrassed for that part of his family history to be told. Even though it’s 2015, slavery is still “the big ugly” that most white folks don’t want to deal with. The bigger issue is: Why is the mere mention of slavery still so taboo and inflammatory? Is it really about slavery or is it about the current state of affairs for African Americans in our society today? Is it about the discussion we know we should have but don’t want to?
History lesson: Twelve million Africans were kidnapped from their home countries and sold into slavery via the transatlantic slave trade. Seven million were dispersed throughout the Caribbean; four million were sold to Brazil. Half a million were transported to America and two hundred thousand went to Europe. One begs the question, why does the country with the smaller statistic for culpability possess the worst state of race relations in the world more than 200 years after the slave trade was abolished and more than 150 years after its slaves were emancipated? It’s our national dysfunction to cast blame everywhere except on our own doorstep. Casting blame on others is so much easier than looking in the mirror and confronting the racial issues that exist in our nation today. My interpretation is that this is the dialogue we are all trying to avoid. Let’s not talk about fixing the legacy from slavery. It’s much easier to condemn the past and do nothing about today.
“If you numb the darkness, you numb the light.” ~ Brené Brown
When we avoid the dialogue we need to be having about race, we rob ourselves of the power of the cure we so desperately need. People, it’s time to talk about race in this country. In fact, it’s way past time. I get why Ben Affleck didn’t want to open that dark chamber. That’s why you typically don’t see people run towards a burning building — it’s logical to run away from danger. It’s a spontaneous act of self-preservation. But the fact is that there is still so much darkness about slavery and the racism it engendered in our society. In my mind, that conundrum beckons the thought that we should be about turning on the light.
“Vulnerability is essential to create something that never existed before.” ~ Brené Brown
The Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two characters: “danger” and “opportunity.” Ben, you may think this episode is the worst PR event of your career, but I challenge you to see it as opportunity. You have the eyes and ears of the nation tuned in your direction. Use that spotlight to promote dialogue that addresses the state of affairs in the country we all so dearly love and help jump start the healing.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; Who at his worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
Ben Affleck, you are the man in the arena. I empathize with your fear, your shame, and your embarrassment. I get that, when you look at the potentially damaging PR nightmare, you see fear of all it could destroy that you’ve worked so hard to build. But I challenge you: Don’t let the fear of this dialogue rob you of the power to utilize this opportunity for healing and change. Dump your demons. Get past your embarrassment.
I’ll meet you in the middle… Let’s make a difference!
Diana Roman is president of Our Black Ancestry Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research, preserving historic materials and properties, and promoting the healing of racial wounds. She has amassed a huge collection of materials related to the Hairston slaveholdings and can be contacted at DJRoman@OurBlackAncestry.com.
1 February 2015
Imagine an online community where we can search our ancestors…download, print and share historic documents… and collaborate in real-time with other researchers. That is the place Our Black Ancestry wants to build — a POWERHOUSE of genealogical discovery for African Americans.
Ever since we first went online in 2007 – we have hoped and prayed OBA would grow. Today, there are more than 20,000 people on our Facebook page and 8000 visitors a month to our website. It is clear that SO MANY of us are interested in discovering our roots, yet there is NOBODY serving that need in the way we hope to do.
It takes MONEY to make the OBA dream a reality and we ask that you contribute to that dream TODAY. Funds raised in this campaign will be used to pay hosting fees for our existing site and to retain a developer to build a more robust technology platform. Just imagine what a fabulous OBA home place we could build if EVERYONE in our network made a contribution!
Our fundraising campaign will be promoted through the month of February. If you have lots, give lots. If you don’t — give $25…. or $10…. even $5…. whatever your budget can afford.
Click to contribute — this link will take you to the OBA website where you will see a DONATE button in the lefthand navigation column: Our Black Ancestry
If you want to know more, we would be happy to answer any questions you might have. Email email@example.com
Who’s in charge?
Sharon Morgan is a genealogist, writer and marketing communications professional whose ancestors were enslaved in Mississippi and Alabama. Her 30 years of research led her to create Our Black Ancestry to help others trace their family histories. It also led her to co-author a book: Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade, which was published in 2012 by Beacon Press.
Diana Roman is a marketing and international business development professional. She is descended from the Hairston family, one of the largest slave owning families in American history. Their story is told in the book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. Historical family documents are presented on the website HairstonGenealogy.com, which is sponsored by Our Black Ancestry.
2 September 2014
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?
1 April 2014
Doing research to identify our enslaved ancestors is difficult and frustrating beyond belief. One reason is that many of the records we need to document their names are hidden inside the records of the families who enslaved them. I hope the blog reprinted below will inspire other who hold the keys to our past to lift the veil of secrecy.
About a month ago I joined a black ancestry group on Facebook. You may think this is an odd thing to do considering I am not black. I did it for a specific reason, to ask a question that had been plaguing me for a long time. The following is the question that I finally asked about five days days ago.
“I have had this question rolling around in my head for several years but didn’t know who I could ask about it. I have been afraid it may offend people but I have read some posts on here so I feel comfortable asking. Let me preference it with this: Unfortunately, I have several slave owners in my family tree, some dating back into the late 1600s. I have some wills that give names and locations. Would it help others if we were able to list those names and locations on our trees so their family could find them? If this were possible what would be the correct way of doing this? Thank you in advance for your answers.”
I was hoping for a little direction or maybe a few ideas as to how to share this information in a way that would benefit those who would need it. I was overwhelmed with the numerous responses I received! Here are a few of them:
“Valerie Hughes, bless you for wanting to do this….and for overcoming your fear History IS what it IS, and we’re all in it, no matter how we got here. It’s highly refreshing to have come across you, and your willingness to share your information with those that can benefit. Hey, Black folks just wanna KNOW some stuff, and for those of us who do, MUCH THANKS to you.”
” I haven’t begun to find a slave master for my ancestors so I say list the information and thank you, Valerie Hughes for your forward thinking. “
“You are a blessing to so many looking for slave families. I wish ALL descendants of slaves would make the wills available. Thank you Valerie Hughes!!”
I was so incredibly humbled by the excitement and encouragement I received. I started thinking how can I help to pass this along so that others can also share what ‘slave owner/slave’ information that they may have?
A couple of the group members gave me websites so I could add the information I found on the wills, Estate Records and the 1850 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules that I had to them. I have submitted three family records so far and I will be adding more as I am able. Then I started thinking, what else could be done? Surely I am not the only one with this vital information. I know how I feel when I come upon a brick wall in my family and I also know how I feel when I am able to break through that wall and find the information I desperately needed. It is the best feeling in the world and I think everyone should have a chance at experiencing it. So here is what I can up with:
#1) As you go through your family trees or your documents take the time to copy any ‘slave owner/slave’ information that you find. This can include any oral histories you may have.
#2) Submit them to the appropriate websites.
#3) Tell others about doing this. Paying it forward is always a good thing!
#4) Contact Ancestry and Family Search and encourage them to develop a way of adding this information to our trees in a way that can be searchable.
I want to encourage everyone who reads this to take the time to do these things because in doing so we can enrich the lives of others who are also searching for their Family History!
Valerie Hughes is a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, wife, mother and grandma. She has written two books: Your Family History: Doing It Right The First and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip — both of which are available on Amazon.com
Here is a link to her original blog post: http://genealogywithvalerie.wordpress.com/
4 January 2014
This is my great grandmother, Rhoda Reeves Leslie. Tall, copper colored and handsome, she is a woman whose dreams I shall never know.
If I could have ONE DAY with someone who’s gone, it would be a day with THIS woman — who must have been SO STRONG that slavery could not diminish her, the bearing of nine children could not weaken her, and memory could not erase her.
After her husband died in 1938, Rhoda came to live in Chicago at the behest of her two sons — my grandfather Robert and his brother Tommie Joe. At age 88, she left behind the small house on Ripley Street in Montgomery that defied the Confederate capitol a few blocks away and ventured to the “promised land” of the north.
When I was born in 1951, Mama Rhody was 101 years old. She had already lived a full century and my thoughts can only beg to imagine what her eyes might have seen. At three years old, all I remember is her impressive stature. At six feet tall, her commanding presence exuded power even as her silent ways exuded mystery and love.
Because I was a mere child, I never had the opportunity to really talk to her. I don’t know what abominations her eyes were vision to, what thoughts swirled in her mind, what memories she held what dreams to which she aspired. ‘
Knowing her is something I would sooooo like to do — especially because my family who knew her always said that I was her mirror. If I could meet Mama Rhody today, there are SO MANY impertinent questions I would ask!
My father (her grandson) told me she left slavery with her husband and mother from Lowndes County, Alabama.
One story, reported by my father, is that the white wife of Rhoda’s father, enraged at her husband’s bastard/slave child, threw baby Rhoda against a wall when she was about two years old. The assault threw her into into convulsions.
Who was the father? Who was his vicious wife? Where did it happen? What transpired after?
She said she was “Indian” but nobody knows for sure if that is true. If she was, she would likely have been Choctaw.
Did her mother travel on the “Trail of Tears”?
All I have to substantiate the Indian claim comes from my first cousin/sister Francine (another bastard child in a different generation) who lived with Mama Rhody when she was a little girl. She is totally convinced that Rhody’s claim was true, but all she remembers is that she saw her smoke cigars – lighted with great ceremony — and spit tobacco into a cup.
Does that an “Indian” make?
In my continuing quest to know, I have culled every memory I could from Rhoda’s surviving descendants:
Her children’s death certificates variously state that she was born in Louisiana, North Carolina or Tennessee. Her surname was alternately reported as Reeves, Jones and Tolliver.
First cousin/uncle Lonnie recalls her consuming a shot of whiskey and an aspirin every day. As a small boy, he was dispatched on a daily daily run to the general store to fetch her supplies.
My grandmother Dora (second wife of Rhody’s son, Robert) said Mama Rhody, characteristically quiet, was a force to be reckoned with. She recounted Rhoda standing up to her son’s abuse by telling him not to hurt Dora in the throes of a drunken, angry diatribe.
It was not until I was an adult and became a serious genealogist that I made my pilgrimage to Lowndes County and Montgomery.
In Lowndes I found the most impoverished community in America, built atop the rich black dirt that made cotton king when Rhoda was in her prime. The Black Panthers conducted their first voter registration drive here. When impassioned people marched from Selma to Montgomery, Lowndes County was where they pitched their tents and defied the local order.
In Montgomery, I walked Ripley Street where Rhody’s demolished house once stood. In Oakwood Cemetery, the graveyard a few blocks distant, I thumbed through burial cards and found many relatives I did not know. Tom Leslie (Rhody’s husband/my great grandfather) and my father’s mother Julia Williams are buried in “Scott’s free burying ground” — a place reserved for po’ folks.
Ahhhhhhh, Mama Rhody…
Where did you come from? Who were your mother and father? Did you have brothers and sisters? What was slavery like? Is that baby name I found in Scott’s free burying ground your child? Who am I? Where do I belong?
These questions weigh on my mind because whomever you were is a large part of who I am.
May God bless and keep you as I continue trying to unravel the mystery of your life.
26 December 2013
This is the time of year…. beyond any other… that I soooooooooooooooooooo miss my departed loved ones. Most especially, I miss my mother = Delores Marie NICHOLSON (1929-2005).
It is a truism to say that we have only ONE mother…. who occupies a unique and precious place in our hearts that no other person… in the world, ever… can fill.
Here you see her, looking pensive as she languishes in the glow of the “merry” Christmas tree on the sun porch of our family homestead on the Southside of Chicago. The baby doll whose face she covers was undoubtedly mine. The gifts too… as my sister had not yet been born.
What was she thinking? Could it have been contemplation of her own Christmases past? The music on the stereo (which was, surely, “Merry Christmas Baby” by Charles Brown — a rendition he played relentlessly from the day after Thanksgiving to the day after New Year’s)? The huge mistake she made in marrying him?
I can only imagine. I shall never know.
THIS is the way I will remember my mama … on Christmas Eve the year before she passed on…. Knowing that FOR ME, her indominitable spirit will ALWAYS be alive!
19 December 2013
GUEST BLOG by Patricia Moncure Thomas
African American women have left an indelible imprint on America through centuries of arduous struggles to achieve self-determination, equality, and freedom from racial, class, and sexual exploitation — making a way out of no way. They have taken a stand for human beings regardless of color, culture, religion or gender, exhibiting without doubt that black women are neither morally or intellectually inferior. Their struggle continues today.
The African American woman was subjected to some of the most inhumane conditions man has ever known; conditions designed to strip all remnants of her African heritage and to reduce her to a status of subhuman. She became chattel property, not allowed to speak her native language, practice her native religion, nor legally marry or rear her children without interruption. White slave masters sought to reduce her to a sexual object and the breeder of their illegitimate children; children not treated as the masters’ sons and daughters, but as pieces of property.
The strong maternal instinct of black women survived the painful and repeated ripping away of children from their bosoms; to which Sojourner Truth gave eloquent voice: “I have borne 13 children and seen most of them sold into slavery and when I cried out with my mother grief, none but Jesus helped me.”
Slavery pressed the African American woman into servitude, but did not press today’s beautiful African American sisters into giving up. Rather, their struggles laid the foundation for true liberation. Out of the circumstances that forced our foremothers to work long hours as field hands, nursemaids, cooks, seamstresses, washerwomen, gardeners, nannies; African American women emerged as roles model of strength and compassion. Despite cruel treatment designed to break their spirit, black women remained strong, versatile, tireless mothers and laborers who forged their own identity, set their own pace, and established a precedence of leadership for women all over the world.
While a majority of the information in our history books speaks only to the slave era, there is so much more to the history of black women. They were writers, poets, nurses, ministers, abolitionists, soldiers, pioneers, builders, farmers — and the list goes on. All were not slaves; many were free. Although still treated as less than human, African American women continued their sojourn for equality after slavery ended knowing that the battle was not over. And, to date, it is still not over.
Today we gladly learn more and more about the historical contributions of black women — their creativeness, resourcefulness, and past struggles. We celebrate their endurance and achievements that blazed a pathway for future generations.
In that awareness, I urge all to listen to the voices of our strong African American sisters. Listen to their voices rising in celebration of all black women. Hear them in the spirit of poet Maya Angelou’s words: And Still I Rise… And Still I Rise.
Patricia Moncure Thomas is an educator and family historian who lives in Washington state. She has spent many years delving into the history of the Moncure family, which is related to two of America’s founding fathers — George Washington and George Mason. The first ever meeting of her black and white family in Fredericksburg, Virginia was featured in an Associated Press article and she wrote Moncure Place: Connecting Family & Friends. Ms.Thomas is a member of Coming to the Table, a group that focuses on healing from the legacy of slavery. Her family website is http://www.moncure.mysite.com/