Saving the Dunbar Rosenwald School in Fluvanna County, Virginia

Saving the Dunbar Rosenwald School in Fluvanna County, Virginia

At the “back” side of the Bremo plantations, there’s a community of African American families, many of whom have ties back to the days of slavery on those plantations.  If you’ve read my book The Slaves Have Names, you know many of those families – the Creasys, the Thomases, the Smiths, and many more.

Within this community, there is a beautiful school called Dunbar. Dunbar was an original Rosenwald School, built in 1923-24, using funds from the local community, the Rosenwald Fund (started by Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck, Inc.) and the local government.  These schools were often the ONLY source of education for African American children in rural areas of the South.

Dunbar was open until the 1950s, and so many people I know attended this school up through 8th grade or so before moving over to the local black high, Abrams, for the final years of their education.

As you may know, many Rosenwald Schools are in danger of collapse due to neglect and disuse, but my friends Carmen and Stanley Smith are working hard to save Dunbar. For the past few years, they have been tirelessly cleaning the school, shoring up its structure, and working to make it a community center for everyone in the area.  (You can see some phenomenal pictures of the school here.)

We Can Help

Carmen and Stanley are in the midst of a major fundraising campaign so that they can complete the restoration and the transformation of this building. If you would like to contribute – and I hope you will – please follow this link and make your donation. (Please note – there is a problem with the site at this moment, so please keep trying if you’d like to donate.)

If you’ve read my book Charlotte and the Twelve, then you know I believe these important pieces of history and community story are vital in our process of healing and knowing one another as a nation.  I cannot wait to see what Carmen and Stanley do here, and I hope you will join me in being part of this great work.

Make your donation here. 

Great Grandmother’s Legacy by Charles F. Holman III

Great Grandmother's Legacy by Charles F. Holman III

Charles’ great grandmother, Lucille Holman.

Today, I am thrilled to welcome Charles Holman as he tells the powerful story of his great grandmother’s name and the way finding our stories is a communal endeavor.

Some ancestors gift you with a bequest when they pass on. We often think of this kind of thing as money, property, a cherished item, etc. But my Great Grandmother Lucille (Robertson/Robinson) Holman (1863 – 1932) left my family a hidden, valuable legacy which again revealed itself to me just yesterday afternoon.

More than 40 years ago I began to research my family tree. Like many African Americans I wanted to know where in Africa some of my ancestors originated. The late Alex Haley taught me to seek out any African words or names that might have been associated with ancestors for clues.

So my Dad and I approached my paternal grandfather, Charles Holman Sr., (1898 – 1987) and asked him what he knew. Initially unwilling to talk about the past, with some prodding Grandpa began to provide some details. He told us his mother, Lucille (Robertson) Holman had African ancestors and he thought her father had an African name which he pronounced as “Da-dash- shoe-wah”

Soon my Dad and I began to share what Grandpa had told us. A few years passed and in the summer of 1978 I mentioned this to my double cousin, the late Geneve (Holman) Jackson (1924 – 2014). Geneve told me flat out that we were wrong. Geneve told me in no uncertain terms that“Da-dash- shoe-wah” was actually my grandfather’s mother’s name.

What Geneve told me didn’t make sense to me at the time. I had heard my grandfather’s mother’s name was Lucy or Lucille Holman. How then could her name be “Da-dash- shoe-wah,” especially when we knew Grandpa's mother was not African but South Carolinian?

Although Geneve’s message didn’t make sense to me, I made a mental note and filed it away. A few years later in late 1986, I wrote to a linguist at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria to see if they could tell me about the name “Da-dash- shoe-wah.” Much to my delight, a reply arrived in January 1987. They told me they thought the name was a name given to girl children. They also told me the name was characteristic to an area in Nigeria in or near the northern part of its Bendel State.

Decades passed after I received this letter, and I never heard more until just yesterday on Facebook. Facebook has a series called “American Slavery,” and if you don’t subscribe to it, you definitely should. Anyway, yesterday the topic at “American Slavery” was naming customs during slavery. They stated that during slavery it was sometimes customary to give a child two names, one name that the slaveholder and everyone would know and a second “given name the child’s family selected and kept secret.”

When I saw this, what cousin Geneve had told me all those decades ago finally made sense, i.e. Lucy or Lucille was great grandmother’s public name, and “Da-dash- shoe-wah” was her secret African name known only to family members. Immediately, I wrote and thanked the authors of “American Slavery” for sharing this insight with me. But little did I expect that it would get evenbetter just a very short while later.

An African lady saw my note to American Slavery and responded the same day. The lady said the name “Da-dash- shoe-wah” was a popular one and actually spelled “Adeshuwa”. The lady also independently confirmed that the name was given to girl children. Even more importantly, the lady told me the significance of the name:

That means you hail from the Yoruba. They are in Western Nigeria. Adeshewa in Yoruba means the beauty of royalty. I am Igbo by the way, I just happen to be able to speak Yoruba. It could also mean she (Great Grandmother) was from Benin. They are also a mid-western tribe in Nigeria. The Yorubas originated from the Benin tribe. So she definitely hailed from Nigeria either way. God bless you.

So it turns out all these decades later, Geneve must have been right – in fact two independent African sources confirm what Geneve said. But even more important than simply proving Geneve right, by her very name, Great Grandmother has left me a legacy, and all of her descendants, the priceless knowledge, unknown to most African Americans, that we share a bondwith Nigeria because it is one of our ancestral homelands.

Great Grandmother’s legacy is also corroborated by DNA analyses indicating that approximately 15% of my ancestry comes from Nigeria and the Yoruba tribe, both mentioned by the lady at Facebook just yesterday afternoon. Indeed, even science acknowledges that Great Grandmother’s legacy rings true for me and all of her descendants today and down through the generations yet to come.

 

A Call for Your Stories of African American History and Genealogy

A Call for Your Stories of African American History and Genealogy

Weighing the Christmas Baby – 1889

Every week, I post a story – with a historical or genealogical focus  – about the lives of African American people.  I love researching these stories and sharing them with you all. However, I have a very Virginia-centered focus, and I’d really like this to be a place where the stories of all our ancestors across the U.S. are told.

What This Space Does

My goal with this entire website is to share the stories, struggles, hopes, and work of African American people, and I’d love to share your passionate stories about these things here.  Here, we are looking for:

  • family stories,
  • for stories of injustice rooted in historical racism,
  • for stories about the places important to African American communities,
  • for tips about African American genealogy,
  • and most anything that has to do with black folks and our history and families.

How Sharing Might Help You

When you share a story here, it goes out to everyone I know online, and I also share your story in other forums that are appropriate including:

  • African American genealogical sites
  • Historic preservation groups
  • Anti-racism organizations

I will get your story out to as many people as I can so that you find your cousins, receive wider support for an action or work or art, connect with other like-minded folks, and

Formatting Guidelines

The posting guidelines here are very loose, but typically, a post will:

  • Be 500-1,000 words
  • Include an appropriate image that the writer has permission to use. (Or I can select a copyright-free image for you.)
  • Include a bio of the author, including links to websites or social media pages.
  • Incorporate links where people can get more information.

If you’re have something you’d like to share, just reach out to me via a comment on this post or at [email protected]  We’ll work together to get it ready and get it out there.

I can’t wait to hear what you want to share with the world. 

The Slave Dwelling Project and the University of Virginia – An Opportunity to Present

The Slave Dwelling Project Conference at the University of Virginia

In October, researchers, historians, genealogists, and others are invited to attend the Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape Symposium put on by The Slave Dwelling Project and the University of Virginia. Currently, the Symposium is accepting presentation proposals, and I will be putting forth a panel proposal. I hope you’ll join me.

If you’d like more information about the Symposium, please visit this link. 

Hope to see you here in Virginia in October. 

A Threat to a Historic African American Neighborhood in Wingina, Virginia

threat to historic African American neighborhood in Wingina, Virginia

The Wingina Post Office Store that Woodsons constructed.

In several nearby counties, historic African American neighborhoods are under threat from pipelines that will cross through or set up pumping stations directly in their communities. Many people would prefer a utility pipeline not run near their homes, but African American neighborhoods are quite often targeted as places of “low impact” by utility companies.

Such is the case in the community of Wingina in Nelson County, Virginia.  Historically, Wingina was a riverfront community of several plantations. As is often the case in Virginia, the newl- freed individuals who once made up the enslaved communities on these plantations came to settle near the plantations on which they once worked and lived.  In Wingina, many people bought land and built their lives near Union Hill Plantation.

The Woodson Family – A Family of Distinction

Rhamonia Woodson, a descendant of enslaved people from Union Hill and Oak Ridge Plantations, recounts her family’s deep roots and rich contributions to this community in her letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission:

Our ancestors built the James River Canal and Kanawha Bridge.  . . Not only are our families’ properties, acquired after the Civil War, part of the cultural landscape of historically important houses and historic districts of Nelson County, but we were the builders of those historic resources. The Wingina Post Office Store, Montezuma, Bon Aire, just to name a few, are a portfolio of our accomplishments, recognized and often registered historic manifests that our Woodson ancestors helped to establish.

We started from the Union Hill and moved, not far, to Cabell Road. So proudly, we uphold our existence in this community, maintaining, amongst the families related by slavery, a cherished bond, which we still gather to celebrate. We are still here! It’s the truest form of life we know. I strongly believe that a decision to use this Wingina community on the ACP [Atlantic Coast Pipeline] proposed route a target practice of racial discrimination.

I couldn’t agree with Ms. Woodson more.  When government agencies and corporations discount – or worse even target – African American communities as lacking not only historic significance but also present day importance, they are acting out of the systemic, racist practices that have governed our country since the day it was created.  We cannot allow this practice to continue.

I stand with the Woodson, Venable, Dillard, Early, White, Rose, Fleming, Mayo, and Horsley families of Wingina as they oppose this threat to their home and their history.

If you know of African American communities under threat from actions such as these, please do let me know. I’d be happy to share this space as a way for you to spread the word about these terrible acts.  

Help Save The Buena Vista Colored School

Help Save the Buena Vista Colored SchoolIf you’ve read my book Charlotte and the Twelve*, then you know how much I treasure the stories and history found in black schools. The school in that story is very similar to a beautiful, old building full of history and stories that community members in Buena Vista are working so hard to restore and preserve.  The Buena Vista Colored School was the only school for African American children to attend grades 1-7 from the years 1892-1957, and this particular building was in use from 1914-1957 (the previous building was destroyed in a fire).

Even though I set both of my books, Steele Secrets* and Charlotte and the Twelve, in a town based on Buena Vista, which is where my father-in-law and husband were raised, it wasn’t until just a couple of months ago that I actually learned the rich history of the BV Colored School for the first time.  It’s tucked up and out of town a bit and now sits surrounded by apartment buildings.

But it’s an absolutely beautiful structure – all-brick with wide-plank floors and the chalkboards still ready and waiting on the walls.  You can get a great look around in the video for this news story.

I hope you’ll consider helping to spread the word and support this great work being down in this small mountain town here in Virginia.  We need to preserve these places so that the full story of our history is told and remembered.

Get more information about the school and how you can help here. 

Snowstorm on the Plantation

Snowstorm on the PlantationHere in Virginia today, we’ve had a small snowstorm – ice coats the dogwoods, and the pear blossoms are encased. Fruit farmers here will suffer. . . I acknowledge this even as I recognize the beauty of the landscape today.

But as I walked up from our barn today in my lined boots, hooded sweatshirt, and warm coat, I began to think about the enslaved people who once worked and lived on this land. I wondered if, by now, the master might have taken back their shoes to save for the next winter? If they had warm enough clothes for working all day out in the snow? If they still had enough firewood to warm their homes after the work day?

I considered what they must feel to see the mistress’s flowers bending low under snow. Did they worry they would be blamed? Or if the orchard trees had already gone to flower, did they wonder if they would be hungrier still come fall?

What did it feel like to abide in the beauty of a day like this in the midst of the horror of the institution that meant that not only the weather was beyond your control but that almost every decision about your own life sat beyond your own reach? How would you find a way to hope under the ice of that reality?

Readers, do you know of any slave narratives that tell stories about snowy days on the plantation? If so, I’d be grateful to be pointed toward them.

 

If you’re in Central VA, I hope you’ll come out THIS SATURDAY, March 18th from 10:30am – 12:30pm to learn about the Will The Stones Whisper Their Names? Project to map African American Cemeteries in Louisa County, Virginia.  You can get more information about Saturday’s event and the project as a whole here – https://stoneswhisperblog.wordpress.com/.

Because Enslaved People Were Not Immigrants

Because Enslaved People Were Not Immigrants

Brick Walls Often Carry the Fingerprints of the Enslaved People Who Built Them. Joe McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project Taught Me That.

In light of Ben Carson’s offensive and harmful remarks – as we all know, enslaved people were not immigrants – the need for a full accounting of slavery’s history and it’s continuing harmful legacy is reinforced in a mighty way. One of the institutions that is – belatedly but with true commitment – reckoning with this history is the University of Virginia, THE University as people in this area of the U.S. call it.  They have created a President’s Commission on Slavery, and as part of this work, they are holding a Symposium on Slavery in partnership with the Slave Dwelling Project on October 18-21 of this year.

As part of this gathering, the University has put forth a call for papers on the Symposium’s theme “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape.”  It’s my hope that many people will put together papers and panels that present this history not only from an academic perspective but from the perspective of descendants, community residents, and homeowners who live and move around these landscapes of slavery in their daily lives.  Maybe you’d like to put in a proposal?

It’s crucial that we all participate in these conversations, that we share our personal stories, our family’s attachments, our deep ties to not only the stories of slavery but to the people about whom those stories were told and the places that carry their memories.

My Invitation To You

To that end, please use this space as a place to tell your stories, share your photos, ask your questions. If you’d like to write a post to share here – either to tell us about your family or the place that you live or to ask questions to gather more information – I invite you to do so. Reach out to me through the contact page, and we’ll find a date that works for you. 

After all, as along as our country’s leadership is belying the horrors of slavery, we know we have a great deal of work to do.

 

Black History Month Is Better Than Nothing. Maybe?

Black History Month Is Better Than Nothing. Maybe?Today is the last day of Black History Month. . . and we know all the biting jokes – the shortest, coldest month of the year stuff. It’s all true those quips backed by pain.  All of it.

Still, at least there is something, right? At least this one month of the year mainstream America gives its attention to the stories of black people, right?

I think so, and I don’t. See, I’m not sure that the continuation of this month doesn’t give most people an excuse to not pay attention to black history – and black people – the rest of the year.  We feel placated and good because we invite black speakers – or in my case, white speakers who talk about black history – during this month – and then we’re off the hook for the rest of the year.

Maybe I’m just being cynical.

But here’s what I’d actually like to see.  African American history as part of all history, all year, all courses, all seminars, all discussions. . . I’d like to see the accomplishments and stories of black people to be integrated – no, I want more than integration. I want equality and occasional foregrounding of black history in our society.  (Incidentally, I want the same for women’s history and for Asian American history and for LGBTQ history.)  I just want history to be equal. . . even though the stories it tells remind us how very much we have always been and still are unequal.

So I talk about black history all year long. I write it. I post it. I go to conferences about it. I steep myself in OUR history – the collective part of our American history, our international history – because it gives me hope and joy and strength, because it matters in ways our culture continual dismisses or diminishes. I want us all to do that, honoring culture and ethnicity in every way but elevating everyone to the same level in our remembering.

Is Black History Month the best we can do? Nah. We can do far better, but until then, at least we get the shortest, coldest month, right?

What do you think of African American History month? Important?  Good enough? Not enough?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

 

By the way, did any of you catch Dr. Gates’ new series, Africa’s Great Civilizations last night? I DVRed it to enjoy it today, so no spoilers. But what did you think? 

Archival Genealogy and Finding Our Ancestors

Genealogy, Archives, and Finding Our PeopleIn a few weeks, I have the honor of presenting about archival genealogy at the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference in Sanduski, OH.  I’m really excited about this, and not just because the society has the great acronym, OGS, which makes me think I’m going to be on some new version of Star Trek.

At the conference, I’m presenting twice: once on how to use ArchiveGrid to find your people and once on how to scour collections of plantations papers to locate enslaved people. Both presentations will be useful for folks researching African American history, or at least that’s my aim. While these techniques can, of course, help people researching anyone through archival documents, my aim – in any presentation I do of this nature – is to foreground the stories and experiences of African American people.

A Story about Helping My White Brothers and Sisters Understand the Challenges

A few years ago, I had the honor of discussing my book The Slaves Have Names with a local book club. We were talking about the people enslaved at the Bremo plantations, but then, as is often the case with a group of people who are interested in history, the conversation switched to how I did my research, a topic I discuss a lot in the book. We talked about genealogy, about how difficult it is to find information on ancestors, especially when those ancestors were enslaved. I talked about the hours of research I put in, and then one woman said, “But all genealogy is difficult. Mine was.”

I took a deep breath and looked this well-intentioned white woman in the eye and said, “I’m sure it was, but at least you have information to find. If you were enslaved, you were likely not allowed to be literate so could not keep written records of your own family. You were also not always able to know dates or even be aware of who your own parents were – or what their full names were.  Slavery intentionally disrupted families, and very few people of European descent have that same struggle.”

She glazed over a bit in the midst of my response. I hope, somehow, she heard me.

So when I present at OGS, I hope my African American brothers and sisters will be in the room because I hope what I share will be helpful to us all. But I also hope my European American brothers and sisters attend too. My work here is to speak the truth to them, my white skin to theirs in the hopes that they can hear me.

If you’d like more information about the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference and if you’d like to attend, you can find that here – http://www.ogsconference.org/. If you do attend, be sure to let me know. I’d love to see you.