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!

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?

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Samba Saturday: Slavery History in Brazil

image

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.

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