3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

I’ve been much quieter here than I had intended when I began this journey several months ago, and I apologize for that. My husband and I have been fighting a battle with infertility, and that battle took most of my energy.  Now, I’m still pretty low energy, but it’s for a glorious reason – I am pregnant.

So for now, my activities are a bit curtailed and involve a lot more things close to home and close to my couch.  I miss research trips and speaking, but I’m trying to take advantage of this quiet time to learn more, to educate myself, to let myself be broken open over the history and legacy of slavery.

How I’ve Been Learning

Today, then, I want to share three experiences that have taught me a great deal in these quiet days.

  1. First, I attended the opening of the new exhibit at Montpelier Plantation, “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” This exhibit focuses on the stories and experiences of people who were enslaved at President James Madison’s family plantation, and it is truly beautiful.  The exhibit includes stories of descendants, artifacts from where enslaved people lived and worked, and a great deal of research about the individuals and families that were enslaved.  It’s WELL WORTH a visit to Virginia to see it.
  2. Secondly, I watched the powerful documentary Traces of the Trade, which tells the story of 10 members of the DeWolfe family, the largest slave trading family in U.S. history, as they trace the route of their family’s business in buying and selling human beings.  The film is powerfully-honest, and not everyone in the film is “enlightened” all the time – but I particularly appreciated seeing each individual’s journey. Plus, Tom DeWolf, the executive director of Coming to the Table, is one of the travelers, and I take great joy in knowing that this experience was a great part of his important work of healing the legacy of slavery.
  3. Finally, I am absolutely committed to W. Kamau Bell’s AMAZING CNN series United Shades of America. In the series, Bell visits places in the U.S. that he doesn’t understand or wants to know more about – from the KKK (a BRAVE act for an African American man) to gentrifying Portland to, most recently, Puerto Rico.  He asks hard questions and listens so well to everyone he speaks with, and since he’s a stand-up comedian, he brings truth to light with humor.

Sometimes, our days of activism and direct action have to be limited, and sometimes, that’s a very good thing because it means we do our own work in ourselves, which – of course – has to be the first work anyway.

Have you seen any of these? If so, what are your thoughts about the work that they do? 

 

I’m finishing up a book with two other authors about racism in the Christian church, and I’m very excited about the possibility that a publisher will pick that up. I’ll share more as soon as I can.  

Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in Their Place

Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in their PlaceWhen I moved to the Bremo Plantations when I was 14, I met my friend Anna.  She and her sister rode the school bus with my brother and I, and because we were the last four people on the bus, we became fast friends – two hours together a day will do that to people.  Anna and I talked about most everything – from the boys we liked to the teachers we didn’t to the town we lived in. She taught me what it meant for someone’s skin to be “ashy,” and I suspect I taught her nothing about being white because, as a black girl, she already knew the lingo there.

After we’d gotten to know each other a bit, Anna told me about her friend Coffee, who had worked as the cook on the plantation that I lived on (the one my dad managed.)  He was a black man, she said, and the owners at the time hadn’t treated him very well. He’d lived in the apartment over the garden room, and he was expected to be on hand whenever the owners needed him to be, even when he had family obligations of his own. He had left by the time we moved there.

But Claudine hadn’t. Claudine was the housekeeper, and her face lit up with joy every time I walked in the room, her almost toothless smile a beam of light.  Claudine, too, was expected to be on hand for her regular hours and then also for any special occasions, holidays, and weekends when the family wanted to visit the 9 bedroom, 4.5 bath house.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that the owners thought they were “helping Claudine out” by giving her work, and along that same way, I realized that they thought Claudine and Coffee were “in their place” as black people working in domestic situations.

The owners were not terrible people – they loved my family, and I loved them like grandparents – but they were acting out of the racism and upbringing that was true (is still true) for many wealthy and middle class whites in the South. (You’ve read The Help, right?) Their behavior was wrong and hurtful.

So this week, when I read “The Enslaved Woman They Called Lola,” I went back to those days just 28 years ago and thought of Coffee and Claudine.  Lola is Claudine is every other black women who was expected to nanny, nurse, clean, and cook for white people because “that’s just the way it’s done” or, perhaps even more menacingly because “those good white people” are helping black people by giving them work, as if it’s a favor to their employees rather than to them.

Slave vs Enslaved

I am a huge proponent of using the term enslaved person to refer to an individual who lived and toiled under the institution of slavery because, as the article suggests, it places the emphasis on the person and something done to them and separates the person’s identity from their societal status.  But since I wrote the piece that is quoted in The Atlantic article, I’ve also come to understand that sometimes we have to take the terminology of the oppressor and use it to break down the oppression. Hence, the title of my book The Slaves Have Names.  I’m trying to make a point there – about identity, about the power of words to dehumanize. I’m trying to co-opt a word for a purpose.

I don’t know if I do that well.

I do know, though, that we can get all caught up in language and miss the people. . . we do it all the time. Back in the day, we did it by calling enslaved people “servants,” as if they chose their work and their home. Now, we do it by calling people “thugs” or “criminals” as code for our own racism about black people.

So when I talk about individual human beings that I know – Ben and Minerva, Lucy and Nelson – I say they were enslaved – a system was placed on them that held them in bondage, but that system did not make them become what it hoped it could – slaves.  No, these were strong, talented, courageous, perseverant people. PEOPLE.  Always, in every way.

The Legacy

A few years into our friendship, I invited Anna and her family to revival at our church. Her dad was a Baptist minister, and I went to a Baptist church . . . it seemed right.

I sat with them, and after the service, I was all excited to introduce them to the pastor. We all went to the front of the sanctuary to shake my pastor’s hand.  He looked at Anna’s father, scanned his eyes over the rest of the family, and then turned away to shake the next white person’s hand.

His gaze – as much as any other action or word – told me all I needed to know: he thought Anna and her family were out of place, they were not worth seeing, they were not people.

Sometimes, we don’t even need words to oppress.

 

Plantation Papers for Genealogical Research on Enslaved People

Plantation Papers for Genealogical Research on Enslaved People

My “tattoo” expresses just how I feel about the honor of doing this research

This past weekend, I had the total honor of presenting at the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference. . . the people there were so enthusiastic, and I loved all the conversations that happened around the space.

But mostly, I was thrilled to give a talk on my favorite topic: how to find out more information about our enslaved ancestors.  In this presentation, I focused on how to use plantation papers – i.e. collections of documents from the white slaveholder – as a way of finding genealogical, demographic, and personal information about people who were enslaved.

You can find the slides from my presentation here if you are interested.

And if you’ve used plantation documents to find information about your own family, I’d LOVE to hear what you’ve found and any tips you have to share about those resources.  Thanks.

 

I’m always eager to share this forum with you if you have a story to share, want to reach out and ask people for help, or have a topic about African American history or genealogy that you are passionate about. Please email me at andi_at_andilit.com, and we’ll get your words out to as many people as we can. Thanks. 

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.

 

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.  

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.

 

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.