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.


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!

The First Time

26 August 2010

Just got back from the Alabama Department of Archives and History. I have been visiting there for many years and always leave with a treasure trove of new information. More on that later.

Right now, I want to recall visions of the past…

I vividly remember finding and viewing my very first slave schedule, one that applied specifically to an ancestor I was looking for. This happened many years ago, but it is still a profoundly evocative memory.

There I was, sitting in front of a microfilm reader at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. A library staff member was standing behind me, helping me pull up the document, poised to explain how to read it.

Suddenly, there it was. Exactly what I was looking for. Right in front of me in black and white. Absolute proof of one person owning another — a stranger owning a possible member of my family.

The slave schedule I was viewing applied to James E. Leslie, a 27 year old blacksmith, born in North Carolina. In 1850, he was a resident of Lowndes County with his wife, Elizabeth, and their newborn baby, Robert. His slave was a 30 year old Black woman of indeterminate name and description.

To say that I was shocked and appalled would be an understatement. Tears filled my eyes and I started trembling. I could barely contain myself.

The white woman sitting at the reader beside me erupted almost simultaneously with a shout of joy because she had found someone she was looking for. She said something like “There he is! My grandfather!” announcing her ancestor’s name with obvious pride.

I wanted to lean over and smack the crap out of her.

The library aide held me by my shoulders and comforted me. “There, there, ” he said. “It’s OK. Many people have that reaction the first time they see the evidence. Calm down. It’s OK.”

The shocking part was the realization that the evidence IS there. That it IS possible to find our ancestors. That records WERE kept.

The appalling part was that, for slaves, there are NO NAMES.

I have seen the bloodlines of cows and dogs kept more meticulously than this. The American Kennel Club keeps the names of dam and sire, place of birth, a genetically documented provenance — providing these as indisputable proofs when one purchases a purebred dog. Cattle breeders keep records on stud semen and can tell you to this day which ancestral bulls sired offspring in contemporary herds.

Black people — my people — are mere cross hatches. No names. No places of birth. No family relationships.

Each person is listed as “1” — the numeral being a symbol of their solitary essence. The vestige of physical description is limited to “black” or “mulatto.” Impediments to economic value are indicated in a column for noting “deaf, dumb, blind, insane or idiotic.” That’s it. That’s all I am destined to know.

Was James Leslie the father of my GGrandfather, Tom Leslie? Was James’ female slave Tom’s mother? Or, maybe James was doing some blacksmithing at the neighboring Marrast plantation and spent some “quality” time with Tom’s mother, Harriett Morass?

Somehow, I think these records were obscured on purpose so that people like me would NEVER be able to connect the dots. Should we be able to do so, we might lay righteous blame on the perpetrators of America’s greatest shame. How else can I explain the meticulous absence of personal details for the human beings who contributed so enormously to the foundations of the American economy?

Driven by a need to know whose blood is flowing through my veins, I want to know exactly who that 3o year old black female was!

Slave Schedule - 1850 - James E. Leslie

Sweet Home Alabama

21 August 2010

Hayneville (Lowndes County) Alabama

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

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

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

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

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