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.

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?  

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.  

 

The Color of Love – A Guest Post by Sharon Leslie Morgan

The Color of Love - By Sharon Leslie Morgan

Photo by JORGE LOPEZ on Unsplash

I’ve known Sharon for several years now after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Sharon and I both love history and genealogy, and she teaches me all the time about how to speaking the truth with love does not need to be either unkind or timid.  She is the creator of Our Black Ancestry, an AMAZING community of people looking for the stories of their black ancestors. It’s just $25 to become a member, so I hope you’ll consider doing that today. Now, enjoy Sharon’s powerful story. 

Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.

My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.

Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.

Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.  During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.

When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.

Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”

When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.

It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.

I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.

That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.

Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.

These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him* to document an approach to racial healing.

My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelry are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.

In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.

In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.

When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.

 

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder, webmaster, and historian for OurBlackAncestry.com, a website devoted to African American genealogy. She is an expert in African American consumer marketing as well as a writer. A native of Chicago, she lived abroad for many years in the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. She 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*. Her first book, My Daddy Is A Cool Dude, was published in 1975 by The Dial Press and nominated for a Caldecott Medal. She is also the co-author of Real Women Cook: Building Healthy Communities with Recipes that Stir the Soul and of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light*.

 

*These links are affiliate links, which means if you buy something after clicking on them, I get a small commission, which helps me pay the bills for hosting this site. So thank you.

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. 

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.

 

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. 

 

Researching Enslaved People Through Plantation Papers

Researching Enslaved People Through Plantation Papers

the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

— from “Pilgrimage” by Natasha Tretheway

On Fridays, I tuck myself into one of the most special places I know, one of the places that rest quietly beneath the ivory towers, which I now realize are not ivory just because they are consider precious but because of how very white most of them still are. Still, when I descend into the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, I feel like I’m walking the spiral stairs into a sacred place, where the records of enslaved people nestle tight against those of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

When I’m there, I make a point of calling those two men, TJ and Jimmy Mad.  It’s all about equalizing our perspective of history as I see it.

My research right now is focused on the people who were enslaved at Bracketts Farm in Louisa County, Virginia.  I am charged, by the foundation that manages the farm, to locate the names, occupations, and family connections of the people that were enslaved by the Watson family for a period of approximately 70 years.

The Search

The boxes are heavy, cut from green cardboard that is acid-free and sturdy.  Inside, brown, acid-free folders are arranged by date and labeled, by hand in pencil, with a general description: “notes, receipts, and accounts – 1837”, or “Sally Watson to David Watson – n.d.”

The great tragedy is that I am most likely to find references to enslaved people in the financial papers – in the account and cash books, in the receipts, in the records from Jack, the enslaved shoemaker’s shop.  Occasionally, I read a letter and see someone mentioned – Charlotte, whose daughter Mary is very ill, is noted in a letter from the farm mistress to the master – but these are rare mentions.  Their obscurity belies the intimacy in which the enslaved and the enslavers spent their days.

I scan lists of purchases – nails, fabric, rum – hoping to see the name of one of the waggoners, who took the wheat to the mill or carried the money from the master to the shop keeper.

I flip page after page of accounts and watch for the names I’m coming to know like my own family’s – Randol, Reuben, Marinda, Manuel.  The master is buying chickens from some people, paying others for their work in the tobacco harvest.  An overly optimistic look at these purchases might think he was preparing them to buy their freedom.  I’ve not yet (and don’t expect I will) found one record where someone here purchases their freedom.

Sometimes my skin lights up with anticipation when I see a list of names. Here, finally, more names.  But that happiness quickly tarnishes when I remind myself that the list exists because these people are being willed to children, shifted around based on their relative value.

I read:

Forester, 80 years old, worth nothing

Leanthy, Old and worth nothing

I know, I recognize the dismissal of the old as burden more than gift of wisdom – sometimes these records say these older or infirm people are “worth less than nothing” – but to have it written out, laid into the page against valuations of young, able-bodied men as being worth $500  . . . or a blacksmith worth $600 because of his trade and ability to make his master money – this inscription carves the wound of my heart around slavery even deeper.

The Prayer

I pray as I look, not that my heart will be protected, but that I will see with honesty and not gloss over what I witness and that my heart will stay strong enough for this day’s work.

I pray for the people whose lives I am seeking to recover, for the flesh and bones and beauty and pain is captured, now, only in these fragments of fragile paper.

I pray for their descendants, for the ones searching and for the ones who able to search.  I give thanks for their fortitude, for their wisdom.

I do not know how I came to have this calling, this heavy calling that I treasure more than anything else I do with my time.  But I say prayer of thanks for the mantel of this vocation and another prayer that I may have just a dose of the perseverance that these people displayed to survive the dismal, abominable days of enslavement.

 

Louisa County Roots

If you have ties back to Louisa County, Virginia, I’d love to hear from you.  I am part of a team, organized by the Louisa County Historical Society, that has as our ambitious goal to research as many of the enslaved communities in the county as possible and to make our findings public and searchable.  We are also hoping to work with property owners to help preserve slave cemeteries and burial grounds.

So far, some of the surnames we have found include: 

  • Ragland
  • Quarles
  • Morris
  • Watson
  • Bunch
  • Holmes/Homes
  • Johnson
  • Tinsley
  • Jefferson
  • Hawkins
  • Carter
  • Hill
  • Barbour
  • Stewart
  • Mitchell
  • Marshall
  • Desper

I hope we might be able to work together to put together more of the stories of these incredible people. 

Lowcountry Africana – A Go-To History and Genealogy Site

Lowcountry Africana - Resources on African American Genealogy in SC, FL, GAOne of my favorite websites is Lowcountry Africana. The site, run by the amazing Toni Carrier, is dedicated to sharing resources for exploring the genealogy of people from the U.S. Lowcountry of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Their resources include primary source plantation records from that area. In these records, people may find references to their enslaved ancestors’ names and occupations; they may find family listings; and they may find notes about where their ancestors came from or went to.

Lowcountry Africana also has a rich research library , where individuals can find guides on how to begin doing their family genealogy, tips on doing this research, and links to the Freedman’s Bureau records and other archival collections that can be particular useful for researching African American people.

Plus, the site runs its own blog, as well as blogs about research in SC, GA, and FL, all of which are worth looking to for up-to-date research information and stories.

The way I keep up with ALL of the great things that the folks at Lowcountry Africana are doing is to follow their Facebook page.  It’s chock full of links to their own research, resources from other researchers, and fascinating and important stories that are not always shared elsewhere.

If you’re looking to do research in GA, FL, or SC, you won’t want to overlook the resources at Lowcountry Africana.

I Found Out I Was Black, And I’m Still White

I found out I was black, and I'm still white

Photo by Yamon Figurs via Unsplash

A few years ago, I found out I was black.  For most black folks, their blackness would have been self-evident, part of who they were from the moment they were born.  But for me, this girl in a white body, who had always identified as white – or more correctly had not consciously identified as anything since so much of American society sees whiteness as normative, not racialized – this information was new, a new way of seeing myself, of understanding who I was in a world.

It was also something I could forget, put aside, take up when it served me.  I never pulled a Rachel Dolezol, thank goodness, always being sure to say I identify – and am identified – as white, but I still can pick up this black identity when it suits me and shelve it when it doesn’t because it doesn’t reside in my body.

No one touches my hair when I’m out in public.  We don’t do that to white women.

I’m still praying, thinking, working, talking, listening through what it means to be a woman whose ancestors were black, whose ancestors “passed” and became white, whose ancestors chose whiteness – for what I can only know to be powerful, necessary, safety-filled reasons – and so chose that identity for her.  I will probably be building up and tearing down these ideas for the rest of my life.  I’m okay with that.

How could I not be okay with carrying the weight of questions when I only carry blackness for the strength and gift that it is? I don’t carry the weight of the segregation, the oppression, the dismissal. I don’t carry it with the stereotypes about intellect or athletic prowess. I don’t carry it with the assumption of criminality or promiscuity. I don’t carry it with any of the awfulness of things that come from other people and are laid against black bodies.

So today, in my own white body that courses with the blood of courageous, flawed, gorgeous black men and women, I speak loud this question – Fellow white people, what burden are you laying against our black brothers and sisters? What prejudices? What assumptions? What misguided responsibility for racism are we placing on their backs?  

And will you join me in shifting all of that weight onto our own bodies? Will you stand with me as we accept the fact of racism as OURS to mend? Will you let your black brothers and sisters lean into you with their burdens, let them slide some of that heaviness onto your shoulders?  Will you? 

I hope so, I pray so because when we white people shoulder this burden, when we lift it onto our own white-clad bodies, we can sometimes put it aside.  That’s not possible for our friends who walk in brown, yellow, black, or red skin. . . Not ever.

It wasn’t possible for my ancestors, and so they took up whiteness as their shield. The least I can do now is put my own body out as a shield for those who do not, could not have that choice.

I honor, respect, even understand my ancestors’ choice.  But what a shame they had to make it.