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?
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?
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!
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?
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.
My 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?
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:
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.
In preparation to see the film, Twelve Years a Slave, I decided to read the slave narrative on which it was based. I first learned about slave narratives in college and read several of these first person accounts of slavery in a course on African American history. So essential to our American history, I tried to read as many as I could like Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Jacobs’s. But never did I come across Solomon Northup’s amazing story that he tells in his autobiography.
I was awed by his full life as a free man in upstate New York , the deception that led to his enslavement and his years of bondage in Louisiana, the same place my ancestors were enslaved. I’d never read a slave narrative that described so deftly the full of breadth of slavery or the particulars of it in that deepest part of the south. Northup’s descriptions of what it takes to grow sugar and cotton, from planting to picking, felt almost as punishing as the beatings he endured. I felt I got a glimpse of what life may have been like for my own enslaved ancestors.
My third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton and some of her children spent part of their lives enslaved in Attakapas now encompassing St. Mary and St. Martin parish in Louisiana. In his book, Solomon Northup mentions his owner hiring him out for a job in St. Mary’s. He speaks of joining other slaves for this job, two of whom are owned by Stewart. According to an 1850 Federal Census slave schedule, my great, great-grandfather Col. W.R. Stuart (often mispelled Stewart) owned 59 slaves in West Baton Rouge, not terribly far away from St. Mary. Incidentally, Stuart makes an appearance in the Mississippi slave narrative of a Nat Plummer who had been enslaved in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Interesting as well was that Solomon Northup’s first owner was a Baptist preacher name William Ford. My great-grandfather, James Ford was also a preacher, but with the Colored Methodist Episcopal church. Born around 1860 in Mississippi, it’s possible that James Ford was born into slavery. But I don’t know about my Ford roots before emancipation. I have a lot more digging to do to find where they lead. Researching black ancestry can be challenging and often times over the years, I’ve thrown in the towel temporarily. Moments like the rediscovery of Northup’s quintessentially American narrative, the prominence it is being given through Steve McQueen’s film, and the parallels between it and my own family’s history reinvigorate me.
Since I finished Solomon’s story, I’ve cracked open the “Ford” binder in my office and am rereading what I’ve gathered so far about my great-grandfather, James. I’ve also done more digging into the people who owned Eliza and some of her children. According to a newspaper ad that my great, great- grandmother Tempy Burton wrote to try and find her family, Dr. Robert C. Hilliard owned her sisters Polly and Liberia. (Liberia was freed as a child). Just this weekend as 12 Years a Slave was premiering in select cities, I received a copy of Hilliard’s papers from the University of Texas at Austin. Included was a list of slaves. On it was the name Polly.
I can’t tell for sure if this is my second great grand auntie, Polly, but I certainly will keep trying to reclaim her.
Dr. Sue Eakin, the woman who was largely responsible for getting Northup’s story back into the literary cannon, dedicated about 70 years of scholarship to Northup and republishing his story. Let’s hope it doesn’t take me that long to find more about Tempy’s family.
Check out Dr. Eakin’s website and blog with posts written by descendants of the people in 12 Years A Slave including Solomon Northup’s third great-grandson!
list of slaves from the Robert C. Hilliard papers archived at the University of Texas, Austin. On the last page, it says the slaves belonged to a Dr. W. E. Walker of Evergreen Plantation, St. Martin Parish. Perhaps this is Stirling’s in-law – his wife’s maiden name was Walker.
The only bad thing about my recent trip to Brazil was the timing. While my family and I were there, Americans were marking the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I wasn’t at the first March in 1963 because I wasn’t born yet. So, I hoped to be at this one with friends from my Unitarian Universalist congregation in Montclair and from Coming to the Table, an organization that brings together the descendants of slaves and slave owners in order to heal the historic harms of slavery. These are two groups near and dear to my heart that inspire me.
Coming to the Table was inspired by the vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his historic March on Washington speech that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” On August 28th, the same day the march happened in 1963 and 50 years later, an essay that I wrote came out in MOREmagazine. My essay is about the relationship with my “linked descendants,” the people whose ancestors once owned my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton. So, I guess in a way, even though my body was in Brazil, a part of me did make it to the march. And somehow, while I did not orchestrate it, my UU friends met my Coming to the Table friends and marched together. That’s some serious synchronicity.
My friends, Phoebe Kilby, from Coming to the Table, and Emilia Colon from the Undoing Racism Committee at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair. They were together at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that took place last week.
Me and my essay in the September issue of MORE magazine on news stands now! (Photo courtesy of Greer Burroughs)