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?

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

HR40Petition

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?

For Valentine’s Day: A History of Love

UntitledMy great-grandparents, Josephine Burton and Rev. James Ford most likely met through their affiliation with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  I know from my great-grandmother Josephine’s frequent editorials in “The Southwestern Christian Advocate” newspaper that she regularly attended ME sunday school, church and camp meetings in and around Ocean Springs as early as 1890 when she was sixteen years-old. The same newspaper also has frequent mentions of my great-grandfather, James Ford preaching at the camp meetings, Sunday schools or churches in the area. He was an itinerant minister and appears on the rolls of the Methodist Episcopal Church  Mississippi Conference book as early as 1879.  One of my favorite things published in the “Southwestern Christian Advocate” is my great-grandparents’ May 3, 1894 marriage announcement (pictured to the left).  It’s simple and sweet the way love should be.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

What history of love have you uncovered about your ancestors?

 

My African American History: A Lynching

Signature of Warren Stewart aka Warren Matthew, my second great-uncle. The signature was taken from his

Signature of Warren Stewart aka Warren Matthews, my second great-uncle. The signature was taken from an 1892 pension file.

Long time no blog!

I’ve been working hard to finish a book about researching my family’s history which hasn’t left much time for anything let alone blogging. But African American history month is here, so I had to post something about my family’s story.   I’ve posted on this before, but it’s worth the repeat. (I don’t want to forget that this month isn’t just about the triumphs of black people but also what our ancestors suffered.) What follows is an excerpt from the Feb. 2nd, 1901 issue of the “Daily Herald” newspaper of Mississippi about the lynching of Warren Stewart who I’m pretty sure was my second great-uncle:

PRISONER LYNCHED

When the prisoner, Warren Stewart, was conveyed to Ocean Springs, a great wave of indignation spread over the place, and the mutterings were ominous.  It was concluded to give him a trial, and while the examination was in progress a mob of about 300 persons took him from the officers, carried him across the bayou, and hanged him, after which his body was riddled with bullets about 100 being fired into it.

According to the paper, Warren was lynched for the alleged assault of a white girl and the story was covered in at least eight newspapers from Ohio to Idaho. (My cousin, Monique has posted some of the newspapers on the Our Black Ancestry page on Facebook, so join to have a look and to read her post on this painful part of our past.)

The age and the story of the Warren Stewart in the article match up with my information about my second great-uncle, but I still need to confirm that this is my ancestor, the son of my great, great-grandparents, Colonel Stuart and Tempy Burton. Unfortunately, vital records like death certificates weren’t recorded in Mississippi before 1912.  So, I’m checking funeral and court records from Ocean Springs in hopes of finding a case on file that might include information about Warren’s family and the details of the crime he was accused of. Whether he was innocent or guilty of the attempted assault, his lynching was a murder, an act of domestic terror and it served its purpose. It scared one whole line of my family right out of the south. My Smith cousins left Mississippi for good in the 1920s, and the lynching, my cousin, Sylvia  told me, was an impetus.

Are there lynchings in your family history?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Emancipation Day, 2013!

My grandmother, Louise Walton and our family's dog, Sheffy.

“On January 1, 1892, Miss Josephine Burton, Ocean Springs’ charming belle gave a very nice surprise party for her pastor, Rev. I. C. Rucker, assisted by Mrs. A.B. Stuart and Miss Violet Matthews.  A collection of $6.05 was taken, after which cake and lemonade were served.”

So, 119 years ago today, my great grandmother was throwing a party with her sister, Violet and her brother Alfred’s wife.  When I first read this notice in the personal section of the Southwestern Christian Advocate’s January 14, 1892 edition, I assumed it was a regular New Year’s Day party.  But after reading the next week’s issue, I noticed how another writer, Ada Smith of Sturgis, Mississippi, referred to January 1st as Emancipation Day.  During her church’s evening service, Ms. Smith stated that a professor read and explained the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and freed all slaves. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the historic document.

Since her mother and brother were born into slavery, I have a feeling that my great-grandmother, Josephine was celebrating the signing of that monumental document as much as she was the beginning of a new year and her beloved pastor. Josephine was also a devout Christian, her husband, James was a Methodist Episcopal minister, so perhaps the party was also an extension of Watch Night.

Methodism founder John Wesley originated Watch Night services in the mid-18th century, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal services, according to the United Methodist website. But Watch Night has a  special significance in in the African-American community dating back to the days of slavery.
At the end of the year, owners tallied their property and often sold slaves to pay debts, the website said. New Year’s Eve was often the last night a family of slaves would be together.  Then, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which was set to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863, slaves sat up the night before, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.

Even though I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal church and went to church on New Year’s Eve with my parents, I never knew the history behind Watch Night connected to slavery.  I only learned of that part last night because some friends at Coming to the Table mentioned how they would be participating in Watch Night as well as the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I wonder why the slavery piece of the Watch Night tradition was never addressed in my AME congregation? Was it deliberate or simply never passed down from one generation to the next and, like a faulty link, broke the chain of this history?

This can easily happen.

I thought I knew all there was to know about my grandmother.  I lived just a few miles from her growing up and spent most summer days with her until I was 11.  She was like a second mother. So, I was shocked to learn several new things about her while she was visiting with me this holiday season – things that I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for my new dog.

On the first night of Kwanzaa while eating dinner, Granny commented that our new dog was so big, he reminded her of the pony she had as a girl.  I never knew she had a pony.  It was a Shetland pony she said, which is funny since my dog’s name begins with the same “she” sound. Her pony was her transportation to school. She hated when she had to miss school because first off, she liked school and second, it usually meant she had to stay home and slaughter the pigs on her family’s farm.  She thought of them as pets, not food.  In solidarity with her condemned bovine friends,  she swore she’d never eat chitterlings the way her school pals did, but  eventually, she caved.  Indeed it was my grandmother who gave me my first (and last) taste of pig intestine.

I also never knew that my grandma could handle a gun.  She learned how to use a winchester rifle when she was about seven she said for hunting rabbits.  My grandma was a regular Laura Ingalls Wilder, just black and from Oklahoma.  Had my dog not cozied up to her during dinner, these details about my grandma’s first decade of life, the time she refers to most often now that she is nearing 100, would have been entirely lost.  And to think, I didn’t even want a new dog.

How are you celebrating Emancipation Day?

Sources: The Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 14, 1892 and January 21, 1892.

Motivational Monday: Genealogy Gems

Lately, I’ve felt too overwhelmed to focus on digging up any more of my roots.  Instead, I’ve been digging through my present, trying to unpack the last boxes in our house from our move last year,  get my youngest daughter to part with clothes crammed into her closet that are too small, and  be a good example by parting with things in my closet I haven’t worn since the 90s. This week, I started wading through my overstuffed inbox (I didn’t realize gmail would let you store 3,500 messages).  In the process, I discovered a few genealogy gems sent as email notifications from sites like Our Black Ancestry, and Coming to the Table that brought me back from the brink of giving up.

There was a link to an article about Oliver Cromwell, not the English one, but a free black man who fought in the American Revolution and received a belated honor for it over a hundred years later. He was from the same rural county in New Jersey where I grew up.   There was another posting about grave dowsing, a possible method of detecting the sex and age of the occupant of an unmarked grave.  That’s good to know for the next time I visit Ocean Springs, Mississippi where my great, great-grandmother is buried. There was an unmarked grave next to hers that I suspect may be my great-grandmother, Josephine.  Then, on Bernice Bennett’s genealogy radio show, her guest, an expert on Louisiana records gave a great tip for trying to locate enslaved people in that state – check church records.  The Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge has even compiled a volume of these records called “Individuals Without Surnames.”  I’m going to try this to help locate my enslaved third great, grandmother Eliza Burton.

Truthfully, it is Eliza as much as my chores that’s had me overwhelmed.  I know it was pure luck to even find out her name, but I want more.  I’m afraid that her name is all I might ever get. But with these church records, I have renewed hope.

Is there a brick wall you’ve run into recently that has stopped you in your tracks? What will it take for you to try to climb it?

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