Finding Josephine in the Newspaper


I’ve written about my great-grandmother Josephine’s letters to the editor on this blog several times.  But today, I had the chance to write about her editorials and the newspaper-writing vocation she and I share in TueNight - a weekly online publication.   I hope you’ll check it out.

Remembering New Orleans Ten Years After Katrina

Even though it’s been over a year since I posted here, I couldn’t let the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina go by without commemorating it. Katrina was one of the things that propelled me to try and find my ancestors.  In fact, my husband, kids and I were preparing for a family vacation to New Orleans when Katrina hit. So much of my family’s history was grounded in New Orleans and after the storm I felt more compelled than ever to preserve what I could of it before any more acts of nature washed it all away.

The heart of our Ford Family history to me was my Grandmother Lillie Mae Ford’s house on Conti Street in New Orleans.  I had a love hate relationship with that house.  Grandma was a pack rat, so it was stuffed full of what seemed like junk to me.  But it also was her sanctuary and a Ford family archive – one of the most beloved things I’ve found while searching for my ancestors are two glasses that belonged to my great grandmother Josephine and her mother, Tempy, both kept for over half a century under lock and key within the recesses of my grandmother’s shotgun home.

Fortunately, Grandma Lillie Mae survived Hurricane Katrina and lived for four more years. She was 98 when she died.  My uncle, aunt and cousins survived it too. But my uncle passed away in 2012.  After a few years living in Virginia, my aunt was finally able to rebuild her home in New Orleans East and has returned.  But my cousins have both moved out of state. Without her kids there in New Orleans, my aunt may leave too.

The only thing left of the Fords in New Orleans is my grandma’s house on Conti Street. We thought it would have to be demolished after the storm, but my uncle insisted that he could rebuild it. He was working on renovating it when it caught fire in 2009.  That for sure would be the end of that little house,right? Wrong.

Here’s  a picture of it from a visit I took in 2010:

My Grandma Lillie Mae Ford's house in New Orleans post Katrina and a fire.

My Grandma Lillie Mae Ford’s house in New Orleans post Katrina and a fire.


I guess I still have a love/hate relationship with it. I’ve been to New Orleans once more since I took this picture, but that time, I could not bear to even drive by my grandmother’s house.  My uncle was gone.  Lillie Mae was gone.  And the New Orleans of my memory was gone. All the meat packing businesses and warehouses that used to surround my grandma’s neighborhood were replaced by art galleries and expensive lofts. I used to hate how desolate it felt around there after dark, but on my last visit, I hated the surrounding swankiness. I wonder with all the change going on would my uncle have wanted or been able to stay in the house on Conti street anymore?  I wonder, with so many of my NOLA relatives gone, if I will have the heart to visit there again?

My thoughts and prayers are with all those who lost loved ones and sanctuaries in Hurricane Katrina.   May those souls taken by the storm rest in peace.  May the soul of New Orleans continue to shine.





Surname/Synchronicity Saturday: How My Third Cousin Found My Great Aunt

A copy of the Straight University catalogue for 1914-1915 class

A copy of the Straight University catalogue for 1914-1915 class, archived at Amistad Research Center.

Aunt Rosa Belle listed in the 1914-1915 Straight University catalog, archived at Amistad Research Center.

Aunt Rosa Belle listed in the 1914-1915 Straight University catalog, archived at Amistad Research Center.

 In less than a month, I begin graduate school so I don’t know how much time I’ll have to dig into my family’s past, let alone blog about it.  I’m thrilled beyond belief to be getting a masters in creative writing, but I know that this beginning will mean other things will end, maybe even this blog. Endings are always hard for me and make me feel guilty. But some recent ancestry news I received is easing my transition.While my third cousin was on a research/anniversary trip to New Orleans some weeks back, she found a Rosa Belle Ford listed as a student at Straight University. The name was in a college catalog archived at the Amistad Research Center. Because of the last name and the fact that Rosa Belle’s hometown was noted as Ocean Springs, Mississippi, our ancestral home, my third cousin wondered if the woman was my kin. She wondered correctly. Rosa Belle Ford was my grand aunt.  Other than seeing her name on some census records and a different cousin’s recollection that she may have been a teacher, I knew nothing else about this woman, my grandfather’s sister.  

But it looks like my other cousin’s recollections were also correct.  Rosa Belle is listed in the 1914-1915 Straight University catalog in college preparatory to become a teacher.  Now, 100 years after my great aunt began her professional training, I’m beginning mine.  That has to be a good sign, or at the very least, a kiss from my ancestors.

Motivational Monday: NABJ award honors my ancestors

Me at the National Association of Black Journalists Gala with the award I won for my essay in More magazine: My Family History in Black and White.

Me at the National Association of Black Journalists Gala with the award I won for my essay in More magazine: My Family Tree in Black and White.

Over the weekend, I attended the National Association of Black Journalist’s gala in Boston where I received a Salute to Excellence award for an essay I wrote inspired by researching my family’s history.  It was a real honor to be acknowledged by this nearly 40 year-old association that helps foster the careers of minority journalists and counts Pulitzer Prize winners among its members and award recipients.  But more than anything, I hope my ancestors were honored by my telling of their story.

Synchronicity Saturday: Cousin Connections

Anne Andrews and me at lunch while on vacation.

Cousin, Anne Andrews and me taking a lunch break while on vacation.

This week, I had a chance to meet another distant cousin. Our common ancestor is my fourth great-grandfather, Alexander Stuart who fought in the Revolutionary War.  Remarkably, we both happened to be on vacation in Hilton Head, S.C. during the same week.  Stranger still, her lodgings were across the street from mine.  In our conversations, we discovered that I live in the same neighborhood with a woman that Anne went to school with…in Japan! The more I learn about my family’s history, the smaller the world seems.

What ancestral synchronicity have you experienced lately?

Follow Friday: Summer Reading, National Book Award Winner, The Good Lord Bird

One of my summer reads, 2013 National Book Award Winner "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride

One of my summer reads, 2013 National Book Award Winner “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride


This week, I finally started reading “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride.  This story of a young slave boy who gets swept up in John Brown’s antislavery crusade while passing as a girl won the National Book Award for fiction last year. I have laughed out loud repeatedly in every chapter in between underlining points made by the fictional characters that come off as wisdom of the ages.  If you like historical fiction, or just good fiction, check it out. You also might enjoy this Interview with James McBride, The Good Lord Bird, 2013 National Book Award Winner, Fiction.

What are you reading this summer – historic or otherwise?

Sentimental Sunday: Celebrating Juneteenth on AriseTV

On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the last slaves in Texas learned of their freedom.  Known as Juneteenth, I got to celebrate that day in history by talking about my family’s history and the organization Coming to the Table on AriseTV. The interview begins at 39:51.  I hope I honored my ancestors and that you all had a Happy Juneteenth!

Wordless Wednesday: Mapping your support of Bill HR40 Study of Reparations

More than 500 people from 44 states (and a few other countries) have signed a petition telling Congress to Pass Bill HR40 to study reparations for slavery.  Thank you.  Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia and Maine, won't you sign too?

my push pin map of  states represented by signers of Coming to the Table’s petition telling Congress to pass HR40 to study reparations for slavery.

More than 500 people from 44 states (and a few other countries) have signed Coming to the Table’s petition telling Congress to Pass Bill HR40 to study reparations for slavery. Thank you!

Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia and Maine, won’t you sign too?

Motivational Monday: Pass Bill HR40 to study reparations


Have you seen the June Atlantic Monthly cover article, The Case for Reparations?

I saw it over Memorial Day weekend while I was attending the National Gathering of Coming to the Table. This organization is composed of both descendants of slaveholders and the enslaved and aims to heal the historic harms of slavery.   It might sound hard to believe but, I was actually in my second reparations session of the weekend when I learned of the article.  (The Gathering facilitators polled participants beforehand to see what kind of subjects they’d want us to focus on during our weekend together.  Reparations was so popular, that our planning committee felt two “reparations” sessions were needed.)

I helped facilitate the first session and was inspired to hear the variety of forms reparations might take, in particular how my co-facilitator put the idea into action.  After connecting with descendants of the people her ancestors enslaved, she set up a scholarship fund to help support those descendants’ and others’ educations.

In the next session, my cousin pulled the Atlantic Monthly article from her bag.  The facilitators had already read it as had many of the other participants. As we went around the table talking about our own experiences of ancestors lost to lynchings, land lost to shady dealings, faith lost to the forced and unpaid labor of generations of people without recompense, all of us agreed that at the very least, Congress should pass bill HR40  to study reparations.

As I drove the six hours home from our conference site at Eastern Mennonite University campus in Harrisonburg, VA past rolling hills, pregnant pastures, grazing cows and horses, I felt inspired. I’d arrived at the conference feeling lackluster.  As a board member, I had participated in strategic planning sessions before the conference got started where we brainstormed ideas on how to partner with organizations that lined up with our missions and values while also getting the word out about our young organization. I couldn’t imagine how we would do this. But then, I could never have imagined being on any board or that an organization like Coming to the Table would even exist.  I ended up at Coming to the Table because I was researching my family’s history and came across descendants of the family that had enslaved my ancestors:

  • which led me to an article about the kin of slaves and masters, featuring my reparations co-facilitator of the education fund fame
  •  which led me to more researching and the cousin who pulled out the Atlantic Monthly article
  • which eloquently outlined that there is already an easy solution to looking at reparations in bill HR40
  • which lines up with CTTT’s missions and values.

Gotta love serendipity.

Thanks to everyone in the reparations groups and to all who came to Coming to the Table’s National Gathering for the inspiration of your individual stories. You motivated Coming to the Table to start a petition to urge Congress to pass HR40. Please sign it here.  A study of reparations is long overdue.

What has ancestral serendipity inspired you to do?

Motivational Monday: A Slave’s Story Makes History


When “12 Years A Slave” won an Oscar for best picture last night, it made history.  It is the first film directed by a black person to ever win the best picture Oscar in the Academy Award’s 86 year history.

When I told my 14 year-old this, she didn’t believe me.

“That’s ratchet,” she said, which means messed up.  That it took so long is messed up on the one hand, but hopeful on the other.  That Solomon Northup’s story would reach such prominence after almost being forgotten is hopeful, even if it took over 150 years.  That his story of enslavement has resonated with so many people and is recognized as American history, (not only black American) is also hopeful. That the actress, Lupita Nyong’o spoke so eloquently of the joy she is awarded based on the pain of the people she and the cast portrayed is also hopeful. That she was born on the same day as my 14 year-old who also wants to be an actress is just a bonus.

While no one has (yet :-) ) made a film about my family’s history, there is a book that touches on some of it.  “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom” by Herbert Gutman is a detailed portrait of the life of people once enslaved by the Stirling family (and other plantation owners) in Louisiana.   My third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton was enslaved by the Stirlings. While I haven’t found evidence of her referenced in its pages, Gutman’s book gives me a glimpse into how those in similar circumstances to Eliza lived before and after slavery.  Speaking of books, let me get back to writing mine – I need something to pitch to Hollywood!

Before I go, listen to what Solomon Northup’s third great-grandson had to say about the Academy Award-winning film based on his grandfather’s life and what he would say if he won an Oscar.

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