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:


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?















Samba Saturday: Slavery History in Brazil


My family in Pelourinho, the historic center of Salvador, Bahia in Brazil.

Last night, my family and I explored Pelourinho, the historic center of Salvador, Bahia in Brazil. This part of the town is named for the whipping post where slaves were punished during colonial times. The post is visible on the far right of the above photo. I was an exchange student in Brazil in the 1980s and have observed how much parallel history my native and adopted countries share. Both the USA and Brazil were discovered around the same time, colonized by European powerhouses and used slavery to capitalize the rich American crops and natural resources.

The Africans enslaved in Brazil left an indelible mark on the country from the music and dancing of samba to feijoada stew. While the USA also has similar soul food, derived from slaves like beans and rice and gumbo, and a mardi gras in New Orleans similar to Brazil´s African- influenced Carnaval, our celebration of this culture is mostly regional. Brazil´s is national.

When we took this picture, I thought that it might seem weird that we were smiling at a place where slaves were whipped and punished. But Pelourinho  is now a very joyous place full of music, dancing, laughter and remembrance of Brazil´s full history.  That´s something to smile about.

Samba and feijoada say, “Brazil” to me.  What says, “America” to you?

Motivational Monday: Writing my Family’s History

This week, Brain, Child magazine is featuring an essay that I wrote for them several years ago.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the topic of the essay was the impetus for me to start tracing my family tree.  Somewhere along the line of going back into my family’s past, after  starting this blog, finding real live family members as well as artifacts on my family, I decided to write a memoir. (God willing) I”m in the home stretch.  Finishing a project is always much more difficult for me than beginning, so it was a nice little sign from the universe when Brain, Child decided to feature the piece that got me going on this journey in the first place.  You can read the essay here:

I got an extra dose of inspiration last Friday when I had the great pleasure of hosting a book club that included the author of the book we were discussing.  Our club’s pick this month was the New York Times bestseller “Orphan Train,” by Christina Baker Kline.  The night was such a treat:  The novel takes a forgotten part of American history and weaves it into a compelling journey.  The author brought her dad along.  I got to ask a question about her book’s structure which I thought  worked so well, something I”m struggling with in my own memoir.

The night was inspiring.  Her obvious passion and enthusiasm for the real life orphan train riders that she met in the course of researching her book stoked a flame that’s been waning in me. For your own bit of inspiration, here’s the book trailer:

Sentimental Sunday: My Great Grandmother’s Poem?

In honor of  National Poetry Month celebrated in April, I’ve been meaning to post a poem that I believe my great grandmother, Josephine wrote over 100 years ago.

On March 2, 1893, this short death notice appeared in the Southwestern Christian Advocate:

Ocean Springs, Miss.  On Feb. 6, little Frankie C., daughter A.B. & C.H. Stuart, aged 1 year and 10 months.     J. Burton, P.C.

Josephine had not yet married my great grandfather, James Ford, so she was still Josephine Burton. A.B. & C. H. Stuart were her brother, Alfred Burton and his wife, Clara Harding.

A week later on March 9th in the same paper, this poem appeared:

Another sweet spirit from us has flown;
Another little angel has gone to her heavenly home.
Our Father watched her night and day,
To Him you all must lift your voices and pray;
So you may meet her there some day,
When from this earth you’re called away.
Little Frankey has gone to the realms above,
To be comforted by Our Father’s love,
And join the other little angels there
Who never know of any want or care;
Only happiness and rejoicing forever there,
Over the beautiful things so grand and rare.

The poem doesn’t appear to be attributed to anyone. I guess it could be a known poem that was just personalized with little Frankey’s name, but because it appeared in the same paper in which my great-grandmother, Josephine made frequent contributions almost all about her love of God, I believe Josephine wrote this poem to mark the passing of her young beloved niece.

My very first attempts at creative writing when I was little were all poems, all about God, like Josephine’s other publications in the Southwestern. The thought that Josephine may have written this poem makes me feel like I knew her, and her sentiments, even though we never met. It’s as if she handed down, and I picked up “the heritage of mind and heart” that Antoine de Saint-Exupery spoke of in his poem, Generation to Generation.  He wrote that, “Love, like a carefully loaded ship crosses the gulf between the generations.” Discovery of this poem and all of Josephine’s writings (our common love) shrinks that gulf between my great-grandmother and me.

I hope you enjoy the following poem about forgotten history by Pulitzer prize winner and Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, who hails from Gulfport, Mississippi, a stone’s throw from Josephine’s home, Ocean Springs:

Elegy for the Native Guard / Poem of the Day : The Poetry Foundation.

Follow Friday: Family Photos Resurrected

My grandmother, Louise Coleman Walton and her brother, Willie, c. 1917.

A few days before Easter, I got the best resurrection gift ever, if there can be such a thing.  My brother-in-law sent a disc to me (and everyone in my family) with scanned copies of every family photo of ours that he could find.

I always coveted his and my sister’s collection and made a point of going through the beautiful mahogany box they used to keep on their family room table full of mementos to see if there were any old family photos in there that I’d never seen. The picture above of my grandmother, Louise and her brother Willie, taken in 1917 was one of those never before seen photos.

My grandmother, Louise turned 97 last week around the same time the photo-filled disc arrived. Our Easter family gathering doubled as her birthday celebration. It was  a special treat to go through this digitized photo album with her while she pointed out people and places wherever her memory allowed.

But even with Granny’s remarkable memory, some faces in the photos she just couldn’t place, like this woman’s:

It’s wonderful to rediscover this photo, but I wonder if we’ll ever uncover  the woman’s identity and fully bring her back into our family fold.

Meanwhile, two staff members at my alma mater, Fordham University have been busy doing some resurrecting of their own.

Last month, Fordham’s Sandra Arnold and Dr. Irma Watkins-Owens launched the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans. According to the website, its mission is to “identify, document and memorialize burial sites of the enslaved, most of which are abandoned or undocumented.” If you’ve come across slave burial sites during your family history research, submit your information to the database to help reclaim and preserve this important American history.

And if you have any idea who the woman in the above picture is, shout out to me and help me reclaim and preserve my history!

Follow Friday: Calm after the Storm

My cousin, Shawnique Ford Richter and me a week before Hurricane Sandy with glasses that belonged to our great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton and our great grandmother, Josephine Ford.

I’m happy this Friday not to be following any storms like Hurricane Sandy or the subsequent Nor’easter that dropped about a half a foot of snow on our town, up to two feet in other areas.

I’d always wondered how my New Orleans relatives could put up with all of the Hurricanes sweeping in from the Gulf like clockwork every summer.  ”Why don’t they move somewhere above sea level,” I always wondered.  But look what good being above sea level did for us here in New Jersey.  I lost power for five days which is lucky compared to my compatriots.  Rockaway Beach in New York looks like a war zone and parts of the Jersey shore have been swallowed by the Atlantic.

Things are just starting to get back to normal here as my daughters have returned to school after missing a week and a half due to the storm and train service in our town resumed today after being suspended the past few weeks.

The only thing working for us during the power outtage was my cell phone (when I could get it charged).  I got lots of emails and text messages from friends and family checking up on me including genealogy buddies, my New Orleans cousin, Shawnique, and my linked descendants,  people who I am connected with through slavery.

Just before the storm hit, I traveled to see the latter two in Louisiana and Mississippi. Shawnique and I reminisced about her dad who just passed away in October and we marveled at our family history that he had passed on to us.  I got to have lunch with the sister of one of my genealogy buddies who worked just miles from my grandfather’s resting place where I also went to pay my respects.  After my aunt gave me a special prayer and blessing for a safe journey, I left New Orleans and continued to Canton, Mississippi for a family gathering with my linked descendants. (But not before I bought some beignets from Cafe du Monde). In the perfect bookend to that trip, I came home the following day and spoke at my town’s historical society about what I’d learned about researching African American genealogy by tracing my own roots these past few years.

Then the storm hit.

During those five days without power, oddly, I felt at peace.  Spending so much uninterrupted time with my family, when we weren’t all getting on each other’s nerves, I noticed how they all are thriving.  My daughters have inherited my husband’s sense of humor and compassion, all of them packing up stuff to give storm victims even while we were still powerless. In our community, people dug each other out of broken tree branches and offered each other a spot around their living room fire if that’s the only thing they had to share.  Through the sometimes stormy trek through  my ancestors’ history these past few years, I gained a fantastic relationship with my cousin Monique, and a budding one with my linked descendants. Maybe the calm feeling was just because power was the only thing we lost – no property damage like last year when Irene came.  That hurricane wrecked my grandma’s car which was in our driveway and a lot of our personal belongings that were in a storage facility at the time that got flooded. But I prefer to think this calm after the storm is a Sankofa thing.  Looking back at my past has put me at peace about my present and where I’m going.

My family and me at the Montclair Historical Society after my talk on African American genealogy. Photo courtesy of Tony Turner.

Wordless Wednesday: 96 and Still Swinging!

My 96 year-old grandmother, Louise Walton, having a swing in my backyard on Memorial Day. Granny said that her favorite thing to do at her granddad's house in Oklahoma was hop on the swing he made for her and see if she could get her feet to touch the tree branches. It's nice that she can share these memories with us as well as the swinging itself.

Monumental Monday: Freedom’s Fortess National Park

Fort Monroe, Hampton, VA (photo from the National Parks Service)

Two weeks ago on November 1st, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. a National monument. Fort Monroe is the site where slavery had it’s beginning and ending here in the U.S.

I learned about this historic event a week after it happened.   Thanks to an October snowstorm, I had no electricity, phone, Internet or cable service for eight days. I got a real taste of what it must have been like for our pre-19th century ancestors – reading by candlelight, keeping logs on the fire, and our entire family of four sleeping in the same bed to stay warm! But news of our newest national monument made my time in the dark seem like a blip on the radar. It took 150 years to bring this historic Fort to national attention so I guess I”m keeping in step by acknowledging the occasion two weeks after it happened. Better late than never.

As important a piece of our American History Fort Monroe is, I’d never heard of it until earlier this year when I read an excerpt of Adam Goodheart’s book, “1861″ in the New York Times magazine.  Goodheart wrote in detail of three slaves who came to the Fort seeking  freedom during the Civil War and Union General Benjamin Butler’s decision to keep them there by distinguishing them as contraband of war, instead of returning them to their owners as the Fugitive Slave Act required.  This opened the floodgates and thousands of slaves followed suit.  Butler would later  take over command of New Orleans.    My second great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart fought for the Confederates to  protect New Orleans unsuccessfully.  I wonder if he had a chance to see Butler?

As I read Goodheart’s  account, I immediately started planning my pilgrimage to the Fort appropriately called Freedom’s Fortress.  Even though I have yet to discover when my enslaved African ancestors arrived on American soil, or  which port they passed through, Fort Monroe symbolizes their arrival here and their place in American history.  It’s like Ellis Island and Plymouth Rock – a touchstone for my history.

As coincidence would have it, Goodheart heads the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, MD. My Scottish American third great-grandfather,  William R. Stuart  graduated from there and went on to be a Maryland state senator. Some of his papers that describe his life as a merchant selling everything from wheat to slaves are archived at the college’s library. Tomorrow, I will speak to the college about my family’s history, from the senators to the slaves.

When Goodheart invited me, I googled the distance between Chestertown, Maryland (the site of Washington College) and Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.  I wanted to see if I’d have enough time to fit in my pilgrimage to Fort Monroe after I spoke at Washington College.  But it’s too far.  But someday, I do hope to visit both back to back, both monuments to two facets of my history.

Visiting my Family’s History: Chestertown, MD

My daughters and me at the entrance of Washington College, alma mater of my third great-grandfather, William R. Stuart

For Spring Break, my family and I headed to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to visit our history.  It was there in Kent County, that my third great-grandfather, William R. Stuart  was born, studied at Washington College, married, and raised his children.  My husband, daughters and I were only there for two days and one night, but that was long enough to recreate significant pieces of my family’s past.

I have Washington College archivist, Susan Elter and C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience director, Adam Goodheart to thank for all of these discoveries.  When I first learned that my triple great grandfather studied at Washington College, I contacted the C.V. Starr Center.  Goodheart recalled William R. Stuart’s name from a collection of  letters he and his students found at Poplar Grove, an estate not too far from the college.  Those letters are now part of the Emory Family Papers at the Maryland State Archives.   Finding the Poplar Grove papers  inspired Goodheart’s highly acclaimed book, “1861: The Civil War Awakening,” just released in conjunction with the sesquicentennial anniversary of the conflict. Goodheart also contributes to “Disunion,” the New York Times blog about the Civil War.

Goodheart then put me in touch with Susan Elter who quickly turned up four of William R. Stuart’s letters in the Joseph Wickes IV papers at the college’s archives. Dated from 1828 to 1840, the letters are an intimate look at  Stuart’s work as a merchant selling everything from buckwheat to slaves.  I was sorely surprised that he sold slaves for Wickes because in his personal letters to his sons, he warned them against getting involved in slavery.   Like some of our founding fathers that espoused that all men are created equal while keeping some of those men as slaves,  my third great-grandfather was contradictory and flawed.

As I was leaving the archives to meet up with my husband and kids who were waiting patiently outside for our long overdue lunch, Elter came running out with a manila folder in her hand.  It was labeled Alexander Stuart, also from the Wickes collection. Both William’s father and brother were named Alexander, but these letters  undoubtedly belonged to his brother, also a merchant, also acting as the middleman to sell other people’s slaves. (Alexander Sr. died in 1806.  These letters are dated in the 1830s). Elter is applying for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that would go toward digitizing and indexing this collection. That way, people like you and me can search the collection from our computers and she won’t have to chase us down when she very graciously finds more information that might be useful.

But Elter didn’t stop at finding my ancestors’ letters in the Wickes collection.  She also helped me search through the library’s extensive research materials on Colonial Era Maryland.  There, she located a land survey that showed Denbeigh, William’s plantation was located near Swan Creek in nearby Rock Hall and surveyed in the early 1600s!   She also found an abstract of Alexander Stuart’s will and references to his service in the Revolutionary War (DAR here I come!) Not only was it exciting to find all of these documents about my family’s past, but I reveled in sharing the information with my daughters.  My oldest is in the middle of studying early settlements in America.  Before our trip while I was helping her study and asking her the names of explorers, her eyes glazed over and she answered, “one of those guys named John.”  With the information we found, I was able to explain that there was a connection between at least one of those guys named John and her history.  As we drove from Chestertown to Rock Hall past creeks and farms both bucolic and serene, she took in the scenery and I explained how Capt. John Smith  explored that very area in 1608 and wrote that it was a great place to settle and set up trade. Cecilius Calvert, the Second Lord Baltimore, studied Smith’s writings before he sent the Ark and the Dove in 1634 to establish a colony on land granted to him by the King in that area. Lord Baltimore then granted the land to other English colonists for a small fee.  According to “Maryland’s Colonial Eastern Shore:  Historical Sketches of Counties and Some Notable Structures” by Earle Swepson, Denbeigh was one of the large tracts of land granted by Lord Baltimore.

So, I explained to my daughter that her ancestor, William R. Stuart lived on a piece of land that was among the earliest settled in Maryland and our country. This time, her eyes didn’t glaze over. She just smiled and said, “Cool!”

What cool discoveries are you making about your history?

Family Tree Magazine Blog Nomination

Yesterday, Christmas showed up a little early and in my email.  That seems to be the way I get all of my best genealogy-related surprises.

First, a third cousin, once removed shows up in my email a year and a half ago and jump-starts my ancestry research with her common obsession and appreciation for all things “relative.”  A year later, a complete stranger emails said cousin and me information about a third great-grandmother we didn’t even know existed, helping us reclaim another generation of our family’s tree.  Then last night, a fellow geneablogger I haven’t “met” yet named Yvonne posted a comment on my blog, congratulating me on the nomination which then showed up in my email.

“What nomination?”  I wondered. Between my daughters’ swim practices and meets, Holiday Pageant rehearsals, PTA meetings, a book proposal that I’m writing, and Christmas shopping that mocks me from my ever-increasing list of things to do, I’m a little out of the loop.

Then I remembered. Last month,  my cousin, Monique sent me an email saying she’d nominated Finding Josephine for Family Tree Magazine’s 40 Best Genealogy Blogs.

Family.  Gotta love em!

And I love finding out whatever I can about them, discovering new members of my extended tribe, and sharing what I find and how I find it with all of you.

You can vote for Finding Josephine or any of the other hundred plus nominees at

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