Who Is Bettie? by Sharon Leslie Morgan

(Originally published on Our Black Ancestry website, 2007)

Who Is Bettie? By Sharon Leslie Morgan

For the past 35 years of my life, I have spent many cherished weekends slogging around in cemeteries. During one recent excursion, the weather was so cold and blustery, I could barely keep my indomitable Jeep on the snow drifted and perilously slick road for the one hundred miles I had to drive. I blindly navigated through at least three white-outs to get to my destination and back.

When I invite people to join me for the fun, they cock their heads and respond with a facial expression that says I’m crazy without them saying it in words.

Why do I do it?

Because I am a grave hunter and I am looking for myself.

That particular weekend – the one with which I opened this story — my destination was Covert, Michigan. My point of departure was Chicago, Illinois, the place where I was born, raised and, after years of wandering around the world, now live.

Covert is a miniscule town — population 3,200 or so. Main industry: a nuclear power plant. That’s today. Back in the 1930s, when the people I was looking for moved there, less than a thousand souls called Covert home. Fortunately, they were some of America’s most enlightened. Either that or some of the country’s most humane.

The person I was hunting that day was Pattie Pearl Gavin Smith. She was one of 12 siblings, children of Bettie Warfe and Robert Gavin of Noxubee, Mississippi. This unlikely pair, a former slave, whom family stories say was traded for a horse, and a scion of the family who owned her, were my great-great-grandparents. They walked the earth during the last century. Pearl, their youngest, was born in 1883.

Pearl and her husband, John Gilbert Smith, left Mississippi sometime between 1910 and 1920. They passed through Chicago where they lived with one of Pearl’s sister’s children and landed in Covert sometime after 1930, no doubt relieved to reach their destination with body and soul intact. Their world in Mississippi was not a kind one. Covert represented a haven of sorts for black people trying to escape the brutal indignities of the South. I have no idea why they chose Covert, but my readings have shown me that it was a place where black people could vote, hold office and carry on their lives in peace.

Back to the present day…

Who Is Bettie? By Sharon Leslie Morgan

After braving wind, snow, and grief, I found Pearl and John buried next to one another in plot number 507 at the Covert cemetery. The sexton, Jim (of an unpronounceable surname), led me right to it in his banged up pick-up truck that was obviously a mobile office. He guarded a hundred-year-old handwritten grave registry on the passenger seat.

  • What is your name?
    • Bettie Gavin.
  • What is your age?
    • I’m about 50 years old.

That was Pearl’s mother, testifying in 1901 before the Dawes Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes at Meridian, Mississippi. Pearl didn’t testify. She was a minor then, not yet 18 years old. The Commission’s job was to determine who was and who was not a recognized member of the Choctaw Indian tribe. People who succeeded were entitled to land grants in Oklahoma. Bettie applied on behalf of herself and her eight living children for recognition.

Finding the Gavins

On a different, earlier excursion – to Mississippi, I found myself in the middle of a verdant field near the banks of the magnificently beautiful Pearl River. Not far from the historic marker for “Red Dog Road”, I saw a sign that read “Gavin Road.” Another marker commemorated the “Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” which, in 1830, ceded 11 million acres of Indian land in Mississippi to the U.S. Government in exchange for 15 million acres of land in Oklahoma. This was the land that was being granted during Bettie’s time. The treaty had been signed eight years before the government forcibly marched the surviving Indian population of the East to the West on the catastrophic “Trail of Tears.” That happened 70 years before the filing of Bettie’s claim.

While poking around for a town that doesn’t exist anymore, I found a place called “The Quarters.” There was no sign there, but I had to assume it must have been the former slave quarters for the Gavin plantation since it was located at Gavin Road. Eureka! I was finally home. I found many Gavins (black all) who welcomed me with open arms and – a century removed from the facts — searched my face for resemblance.

  • Have you any children?
    • Yes sir.
  • How many?
    • I have ten.

Other than the remnants of a long-forgotten family graveyard where the “white folks” are buried, I didn’t find much else. The patriarch I was looking for is not there, even though I know Bettie bought him a casket. At least I didn’t find him. Maybe he IS there and there is just no marker to solemnize his final resting place.

This was just one of the many adventures I have undertaken over the last 35 years, on a mission to find out what I need to know.

  • Who is the father of these children?
    • Bob Gavin.
  • How long did you live with him?
    • Thirty-seven years.
  • Why were you not married to him?
    • Because the law would not allow it.
  • Was Bob Gavin a slave?
    • He was no slave – he was a white man.

Bob Gavin, a Confederate war veteran, died in 1896. Bettie sued his estate, undertaking a battle that lasted six long years. Twelve kids later (not counting the four that died) Bettie was forced to settle in 1901 and got all of $125 for her trouble. Her son, Augustus, was accused of thievery for refusing to hand over his father’s surveying instrument. Bettie and her children were put off the land on which they had lived all their lives after the Gavin family designated him “a lifelong bachelor with no heirs” and divvied up his acreage amongst themselves.

Bettie filed her claim for Choctaw recognition the same year she lost the suit against the Gavin estate. It took a full year for the decision to be rendered. She appealed and was again denied. It took another year for the Commission to inform Bettie of their rejection.  It’s written in bold black letters on top of a thick sheaf of papers provided to me by the National Archives.

  • Where did you get your Choctaw blood?
    • Through my grandmother.
  • How do you know your mother was a Choctaw Indian?
    • Because she told me so.
  • How much Choctaw was she?
    • As much as darkies was allowed.

After the findings of the commission were handed down in 1903, as many of Bettie’s children as were able apparently fled Mississippi. I know from family memories that somebody was lynched. Somebody was raped. Somebody was driven from his farm by “Night Riders.”

After years of searching, digging around in dusty courthouses and archives – and more recently, surfing the internet for hours on end — I found Pearl’s sister Maggie in California and her brother Owen in Oklahoma – both adamantly claiming their Indian heritage in every document I can find. William Henry went to Chicago and passed for white. Ella went to Chicago and stayed black. Bettie Pauline went to St. Louis. I’m still looking for Catherine, Mary Elizabeth, Augustus, Ida and Fee. They either passed or died.

The cumulative results of what I have found have taken me all the way back to 1820, even before America proclaimed her Manifest Destiny to settle the West. Yet, despite everything I have discovered through arduous effort, I still have not found the knowledge (or perhaps I should say, the comfort) that I seek. I know it is lying in a grave somewhere.

  • You were born in Virginia then?
    •  Yes sir.
  • And how old were you when you came to MS?
    • I was little – clothes all buttoned back behind.
  • Did your parents come with you?
    • No, I came with some white folks.
  • How did white folks have possession of you?
    • Just like they took me from my mother.

I still don’t know who Bettie was, other than a woman who didn’t willingly take abuse. All I know for sure is that she is part of me. Collectively, bits and pieces of her existence and that o her children will collectively enlighten me as to whom I am today.

“The applicant in this case has some slight appearance of an Indian. Her complexion is that of an Indian. Her hair is very nearly straight… She has the appearance also of having negro blood in her veins…”

  • Were you ever a slave?
    • Not that I know of. I have been with the white people all my life.

The evidence herein is insufficient to determine the identity of Bettie Gavin as a Choctaw Indian entitled to rights in the Choctaw lands under the provisions of article fourteen of the treaty of 1830. The applications for identification as such should be refused and it is so ordered.

Signed: Tams Bixby, Acting Chairman

Deep inside, I believe we all want to know who we REALLY are. I am not yet satisfied.

Who Is Bettie? By Sharon Leslie Morgan

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the co-author with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012) and the author of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light (Morgan Publishing, 2016). She is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a genealogy community devoted to African American family history.

UVA’s White Student Union

UVA's White Student UnionIn the past few days, a Facebook page for the White Student Union at the University of Virginia has appeared.  Groups like this one appeared at universities are few years ago as hoaxes, but it’s hard to say whether or not this one is for real or not.  People here in Charlottesville are wisely responding like it is.

When I first began seeing posts about this group on social media, I had no trouble believing it was real. So often we white people take our privilege as a right, and when it begins to be challenged – as is FINALLY happening here in Charlottesville – we feel threatened and attacked.  We don’t realize that what we have is an advantage, not an innate human right.

So whether or not this whole thing turns out to be a hoax, it’s bringing to light what needs to be seen – white people are not willing to give over our advantages because we fear equality.  It’s heart-breaking.

 

 

Giving Thanks

Giving Thanks

Photo by Roderico Y. Díaz on Unsplash

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that is fraught for many of us. The history of the holiday itself is painful and hard even if laced with ideals we wish we lived in. The start of the holiday season leaves some of us grief-stricken and sad as we miss people and times, as we wish our lives were more like we’d dreamed. And some of us just love this day because it means time with people we love and good food . . . and if you’re like me, the Macy’s Parade.

So as we remember the Native Americans whose tie to Thanksgiving is anything but wonderful, as we remember our African ancestors who did not and still do not reap from the bounty that is the American dream, as we remember our European ancestors who came here for freedom even as they found they could not and would not give it others, I pray we will find some hope here, some way forward.  Maybe gratitude for that which we can be thankful is the way.

May your Thanksgiving be rich in all the ways you need it to be.

If You’re a Writer or Want To Be

If You're a Writer or Want to BeWhen I speak at genealogy and history conferences about researching enslaved people in Virginia, I am continually surprised that, afterward, I get more questions about writing than I do about anything else. People buy my books about African American history, but they buy more of my books about writing.

So today, I want to share with you – in case you have a need for it – that I’ve just released a new book for writers. It’s entitled Love Letters to Writers: Encouragement, Accountability, and Truth-Telling, and it’s comprised of 52 letters I wrote to help writers on this journey.  It’s a gentle book, or at least I hope it is.

If you’d like to pick up a copy, you can order one at the links below:

And of course, if you have writing questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at [email protected]

Thanks, friends.

Home’s Hard History – A Presentation from the Slave Dwelling Project Conference

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of presenting with Lorenzo Dickerson at the 4th Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference.  We talked about the places we call “home” and how those landscapes are or are not available to the descendants of the people enslaved there.

Here is my slideshow from that presentation, including images of the Bremo Plantations, where I grew up and where over 250 people were enslaved.

Ancestors of the Land: Enslaved People and Landscapes

Ancestors of the Land: Enslaved People and Landscapes

Photo by Dave Robinson on Unsplash

When I walk through this place I now call Home, I think of all the people who have gone before me. The schoolteacher, the professional baseball player, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. I think of the people those great-grandparents enslaved.  Of the young couple who sold us the house, making us only the third family to live in this house.  Of the Monacan people who came before all of us.

We have inherited this land sure as we inherit DNA and the quirks of our faces.  We are stewards of it, nothing more, nothing less.

In ways profound and rich, this land links me to all the people who have called it home before. The geography of genealogy. The genetics of rivers and hills.

To be linked by a place is a profound thing. It’s this thing that makes us ask, “Oh, where in Illinois?” or “Do you know that restaurant on Clement in San Francisco?”  The places of our lives make some of the deepest marks on us.

It’s for this reason that I believe part of the work of reparation, of justice for enslaved people and their descendants is access to the land on which enslaved people lived and worked.  Geographies shape us – from the way we understand safety in the tuck of a mountain to the hope we feel in a wide vista to the gentle calm that comes over us by that stream right there – and so the landscapes that enslaved people inhabited matter. They mattered to their daily lives as they worked and walked and loved on the land, and they matter to ancestors who find rootedness and understanding in seeing the fields their grandparents worked and the hills on which they prayed.

I will, for the rest of my life, advocate for descendants of enslaved people to have access to the land of their ancestors because it is, in every way, at least as much theirs as it was/is the land of the owners. I would argue it’s more.

 

On Friday morning, as part of the Slave Dwelling Project Conference and the UVa Symposium on Slavery, I will be presenting, with Lorenzo Dickerson and Margaret Wrinkle, a talk entitled “The Land, the Screen, the Page: Enslavement, Locations of Slavery, and Creative Arts.”  As part of this presentation, I will be sharing my personal experience of seeing people excluded from the places their ancestors’ called home. If you will be at the conference, I hope you will join us. 

Fight Racism in Charlottesville: Support the Vinegar Hill Monument

Fight Racism in Charlottesville: Support the Vinegar Hill Monument

The Community of Vinegar Hill before it was razed.

As you may have heard, white nationalists took to the streets of Charlottesville again on Saturday night.  They chanted their racist, anti-Semitic words. They vowed to be back.

I have no doubt they will.  They have chosen our city as their place to take a stand, and now, we must all do all we can to fight their hate.

If you’d like to do something measurable and long-lasting, if you’d like to challenge the privilege rhetoric that seems to speak of Charlottesville as a bastion of tolerance and inclusion, if you’d like to be a part of the way art makes change, gives hope, and teaches, please consider making a donation to the Vinegar Hill Monument fund.

This monument will commemorate Vinegar Hill,

a neighborhood that no longer exists. It was an African American neighborhood full of African American owned homes and businesses just west of the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA that was razed to the ground by the City of Charlottesville in 1964.

The sculpture will stand outside the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a place that has been historically black and continues to be so.  When I talked with Jefferson School director Andrea Douglass, she told me that the monument would not be something to revere but something to experience.  “People can walk inside it and be a part of it. They can live within it.”

In this time when so many people are protecting monuments to our nation’s racist past, here’s a powerful, meaningful way to remember a community that was a victim of that racism. Your donations will help make this monument a reality, and they are much needed since public funding has been voted down by the city.  Every dollar helps.

Thanks for considering a donation.

To learn more and donate, please visit this page – https://www.gofundme.com/vinegar-hill-monument.  

A Word to White Plantation Owners

A Word to White Plantation Owners

Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash

Over the years, I have done research on the enslaved communities at a number of plantations here in Central Virginia.  Sometimes, I am hired by the people who own the plantation to do the research; sometimes, I do it on my own.

In every case, my hope is the same – that the owners of the plantations, who are almost always white because of historically-based inequities – will make the information I find available to the public so that the people descended from these communities can find their ancestors.

Sometimes, It’s Great; Sometimes, It’s Heart-Breaking

Most of the time, the owners are quite happy to oblige, eager to know the descendants, aware of the way these relationships to the community of African American people who built their homes come with responsibility.  Often, the descendant communities become involved in the way their ancestors are remembered in that place. Often, they become as connected to that place as they want to be.

Often, but not always.  Sometimes, the white owners become too focused on their own desires, on their own gains for being “the good white person” who does the ancestors and the descendants the favor of remembering them.  Sometimes, white owners become overcome by their own shame or the fear that they will be asked for financial reparation that they shut down the access to the places that African American people created for them.  Sometimes, white owners act as if these people – the ones who literally built the place, who lived on it for generations, who also view it as home, hard as that may be – have no right to the place.  It breaks my heart.

My Strong but Kind Word for White Plantation Owners

You will only be enriched by connecting with the black people who built the places you love. You will find people who love these places, too – differently than you do but just as strongly. You will find stories about your home places that help you understand and appreciate them more. You will make friends. You will understand history. You will know – first-hand and real – the way history has been unfair and unkind to people of color, and you will be better people for that.

I’m not saying this is easy – not suggesting that at all. It will take a humility that has not yet been required of you in this life. It will require that you take ownership of the privilege you inhabit because of your skin color and because of this place you own. It will require that you acknowledge racism as real and systemic and meritocracy as a myth perpetuated by elite, white people. It will not be easy, but it will be so worth it. 

A Few First Steps if You Own a Place where People Were Enslaved

So if you own a historic home where people were enslaved, do research about the people who were enslaved there. Here a few first steps:

  • Contact your local historical society and see what they know about enslaved communities in your area.
  • Visit sites like Our Black Ancestry to see if anyone is looking for the owners who enslaved their ancestors.
  • Share anything you know about the history of your place and the people who owned it before 1865 as publicly as you can. (You are welcome to use this space for that work if you’d like)
  • Invite the descendants of the enslaved community to your place and let them walk the land of their ancestors. You’ll find them – as I always have – to be gracious and respectful of your privacy.

Imagine what it would mean to ALL of us if we had these stories, these lineages, these places in common. Imagine if we weren’t afraid. Imagine we shared our history truthfully and fearlessly.  Oh, imagine, friends, the road we could walk together.

If you’ve worked with plantations owners to learn more about your ancestors, what has your experience been like? Or if you are a white plantation owners, what are your experiences or fears or hesitations about connecting with the descendants of enslaved people?  

Can We Listen? A Challenge and a Book Giveaway

Can We Listen? A Challenge and a Book Giveaway

Photo by Farrel Nobel on Unsplash

The other night, I watched Oprah lead a discussion with Trump supporters and Trump detractors. I sat with hope, wanting – truly – to understand how people could have voted for and then still support the current president.  I didn’t hear anything that helped me understand because, well, because everyone there was so angry, so settled into the seats of their opinions (much as I am in mine) that it was just a shouting match.  I couldn’t finish watching – it was just too agitating for me. Maybe they came to some place of understanding by the end? I pray.

I’m seeing that same dynamic play out all over social media these days – as people, again me included – are steeped in arguments about Colin Kaepernick’s protest about police violence about black and brown bodies. Somehow, here, the flag and the national anthem have become the focus, as has patriotism and respect, and I’m seeing a whole lot of vitriol about honoring our nation . . . and very little about honoring all our nation’s citizens.  (There, see, there’s my perspective.) But more, I’m just seeing fighting.  So much fighting . . .

And we need to fight. We need to disagree. We need to discuss.  I just wish we would speak more on the discussion end of things.

But more and more, I think we’re settling into enclaves of belief, unfriending people who disagree with us, publicly shaming those who don’t take action the way we think they should, dismissing other human beings because of their perspectives and, yes, still because of their skin color.  My heart breaks over this because I know that the more we segregate ourselves, the more our divides will grow.

You’d think we’d learned this from our entire national history, but, alas, we haven’t. We have forgotten – perhaps deliberately – that healing and unity come from knowing one another in a real, daily kind of way. When we see our neighbor hanging his laundry on the line or watch the woman down the street walk her children home, when we are more focused on helping the family whose house has just burned down than we are about who voted for whom . . . that’s how we become allies and then friends.

One of my goals for the rest of this year and into the next is to really listen, at least once a day, to someone whose perspective on the world is different than mine – either through nationality, through ethnicity, through political affiliation, through gender, through sexual orientation, through the ability of their bodies.  I want to listen, to try to understand, and to let their perspective change mine.

I’d like to invite you to do that with me, not because we are wrong – I certainly think I’m right; if I didn’t, I’d change my mine – but because healing only comes through knowing one another. I truly believe that.  (And also, we may be wrong.)

To encourage us in this small journey of healing, I’m giving away two copies of a wonderful book called Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade by my dear friends Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf. The book tells the story of their literal and figurative journey to find out about their families and to look honestly at the history that harmed both of them.  Sharon and Tom are each giving away one copy, so if you’d to be entered to win, please leave a comment below and tell me how you will attempt to listen to someone who is different than you in the coming two weeks.  I will select the winners using a random number generator on Friday, October 6th.

Or if you’d like to buy a copy of Sharon and Tom’s book from their publisher, Beacon Press, the Press will give 10% of the proceeds to the powerful anti-racism organization, Coming to the Table.

This isn’t easy work, friends, but surely none of us want us to divide so strongly into factions that we never hear one another and never heal ourselves.

Relentless in Love: The Amazing Women who do African American Genealogy

Relentless in Love: The Women of African American Genealogy

Photo by Olayinka Babalola on Unsplash

The further I go into the world of African American genealogy, the more I realize how much we owe to the women who have kept our families alive and strong and to the women who have searched tirelessly to tell those stories.

Today, I want to pay tribute to these relentless genealogists who dig and miss sleep and share information, all without account for themselves.  These women have taught me much about research but also about perseverance and fortitude.  They are, in every way, walking in the steps of our foremothers.

Shelley Murphy Shelley was the first person I met who did genealogy as the heartbeat of her life. I attended a session she taught at our local library about using unusual record types to find information, and her insights helped me find a great deal of information about the people enslaved at the Bremo Plantations. She is kind, tireless, and dedicated.

Angela Walton-Raji – Through Shelley, I had the honor of meeting Angela Walton-Raji, a genealogist who specializes in African American and Native American genealogy and who has a VAST knowledge of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  I attended a session that Angela taught about using Freedmen’s Bureau records and felt like a whole new avenue of research was now available to me.

Toni Carrier – Toni Carrier is a specialist in the Lowcountry of the U.S., and she is part of the brand-new Center for Family History at the International African American Museum.  Toni’s continuous posting of new resources, relevant articles, and important research about African American history and genealogy on social media make her one of my most-often-cited sources of information about our folks.

Bernice Bennett – Bernice has an amazing podcast about African American history and genealogy called Research at the National Archives and Beyond. I have had the honor of being on Bernice’s show twice, and she is an insightful interviewer, a thoughtful researcher, and a truly kind person.  Her podcast is one I never want to miss.

Stacey Adger – Stacey and I met because our genealogical research intersected. She thought that, perhaps, one of her ancestors was enslaved at Bremo, and so she came from Ohio to Virginia to visit. We haven’t found that connection to be there – yet – but we have remained dear friends. Stacey is a trustee of the Ohio Genealogical Society, and she co-coordinates the Ohio Genealogical Society conference, which is a stellar event.

Cinder Stanton – Cinder is the most humble, most generous historian I know. She helped form the Getting Word Project at Monticello, and that project has successfully located the identities, family lines, and descendants of many of the people enslaved at that presidential plantation. She leads the Central Virginia History Researchers and continues to tirelessly research and share what she finds about African American people in the Central Virginia area.

Hannah Scruggs – I have known Hannah for all of her life, literally, and she always impresses me with her passion, her fervor, and her willingness to stay in struggle when necessary to find the truth. She is coordinating the descendants’ project at Montpelier, and she is, by far, my favorite person to talk with about the intersections of justice/injustice and history.

Niya Bates – Niya is the public historian of slavery and African American life at Monticello, and she is a fierce fighter for historic and current-day justice.  She has a background in historic preservation, and so her knowledge of how landscapes and people interacted is rich and deep. Plus, she’s just a generous, vibrant person.

True Lewis – True is one of those women who always has a kind word or a tip to help, and she never seems pushy or aggressive in her advice. She is a wise researcher and a good ally in this work.  She and I share stories of our ties to Harrisburg, PA quite often.

Jane Smith – Jane is my best resource for all things Charlottesville, Virginia history, and since we know all genealogy roads lead through Virginia, she is just a superb resource in general. She’s kind and generous with her work, which she does out of love and commitment to her city and the African American people who were foundational to it.

 

These women carry on the long, heavy tradition of our foremothers with grace, with resolve, and with ingenuity, and it is because of them that we know so much about our ancestors.  If you don’t know their work, please get to know it. You won’t be sorry.

I know I missed important women who do African American genealogy in this list, so please inform me by sharing their names and links to their work in the comments below.