Treasure Chest Thursday: Grandpa Ford's Dress

My grandfather, Martin Luther Ford and his brother, Adrian Ford around 1910.

A copy of the above picture of my grandfather, Martin Ford and his brother Adrian hangs on the wall in our house.  It’s one of my most prized possessions. It was probably taken around 1910 since  my grandfather, seated, was born in 1905 and doesn’t look like he is much more than 5 years-old in the photo.  I don’t know what I love more about this picture – Grandpa’s belted dress or his long flowing hair!

Treasure Chest Thursday: My 60 year-old Grandparents earn their GEDs

My maternal grandparents, Alonzo and Louise Walton featured in a New Jersey newspaper after graduating High School in their 60s.

When my maternal grandparents were in their 60s, they decided to go back to school to get their GEDs. Alonzo Walton and Louise Coleman Walton both grew up on farms around the turn of the century.  The Waltons owned theirs, and the Colemans were sharecroppers.  Like a lot of farming/sharecropping children, their hands were needed to work the land more than to do math equations in school. Alonzo in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and Louise in Clinton, Oklahoma both quit school around sixth or seventh grade to help their families survive.

But their thirst for learning didn’t end there.  So, when my grandfather retired from the Air Force after about 40 years of service and all of their grandchildren but me were attending college, they enrolled in PembertonTownship’s Adult Evening High School Program in New Jersey. It took them two tries to pass the final exam.  But pass they did and in 1980 they received their GEDs.

The above photo is from a story in Pemberton’s “Time Advertiser” newspaper featuring the Waltons, the only grandparents enrolled at Burlington County College. After the article came out, the newspaper sent my grandparents the black and white photo they used and my grandparents framed it and hung it on the wall.  I’d stare at that photo and read the article tacked under it every time I went to their house.  It was a constant reminder that the education I was receiving as a right, my grandparents treasured as a privilege. The value of education is probably the biggest lesson I learned from my grandparents without them ever having to say a word.

In a Nola State of Mind

My daughters being mysterious in the French Quarters

Less than two weeks before Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Saints won their first super bowl appearance and residents elected the first white mayor to the majority black city in more than 30 years.

New Orleans is in transition.

I noticed it the last time I was there in August for my grandmother’s funeral. She lived within walking distance of the French Quarters and while Bourbon Street was still appropriately bawdy with scantily clad women hawking their product from doorways, the town in general was different. A lot of the warehouses that used to dot the streets around my grandma’s neighborhood had been converted into lofts and art studios. Except for the architecture and the cobbled streets, the town felt more like New York City’s Chelsea or Soho pre 1990s. Even grandma’s church had changed. She’d been a longtime parishioner of Grace United Methodist, an all black church until Katrina forced it to close and merge with First Methodist, a mostly white church.

On the one hand, it is nice to see the revitalization of this important American city, but I feel anxious about the changes, what culture might be swept out to make way for the new, what old touchstones might be lost.

I want to be able to walk down the streets that my ancestors walked and see what they saw.

I wonder what my grandmother would think of the new white mayor or what my ancestors Colonel Stuart and his father would think of the town’s prominent black population. I hope to uncover some of their ideas in the collection of my third great grandfather’s papers, which I’m making my way through (About 200 pages read so far…only 400 more to go!)

It reminds me that I should take a picture of our house and put it in a time capsule so future generations, if they are as sentimental as I am, have a picture of what their people’s neighborhood looked like way back when. What local history would you like to preserve?

Negro? Please.

My grandfather, Martin Luther Ford, referred to as "mulatto" in some census documents.

In the 2010 Census, people will be able to classify themselves as Negro.  The U.S. Census Bureau has added “Negro” to its forms again because some people prefer to be called by the term an official said.

I’d love to meet the people who refer to themselves as Negro.  Seriously.  I’m always interested in people’s personal philosophies when it comes to identity.  Why someone would want to call themselves something that conjures up the Jim Crow south is particularly intriguing.

My grandmother referred to herself and other black people as colored well into the 1980s, but she’s 93. That’s what blacks were called in the early 1900s in Oklahoma where she grew up.  Her father, my great grandfather, Bud Anderson had a penchant for calling everybody the n word, but only if he liked you. He also liked to carry around a shotgun, so I’m sure people just swallowed his generous use of the n word whether they found it offensive or not.  My great grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford and my grandfather, Martin Ford were classified as mulattoes in a 1910 census.  I wonder if that’s how my great grandmother saw herself, as a mulatto.  I know that’s not how my grandfather saw himself.  When I asked him if he was white, he made it clear he considered himself a black man.  But I’m grateful that the census made this distinction however distasteful the word mulatto may be.  “Mulatto” helped me find them in census reports and their ancestors in archives.

I like to call myself black even though some might consider African American the politically correct term. I’ve tried to use African American for myself, but it never feels right.  The term didn’t come into popularity until I was in my late teens and I was used to and liked the term black by then.  Besides, Africa is a big continent encompassing a plethora of cultures.  Would an American whose parents were born in Egypt call herself African American, or one with parents born in India consider himself Asian American?  I’d like to know.   How do you identify yourself?

No Place Like Home

A black and white photo of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, an ancestral home

My first cousin recently moved a stone’s throw from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, pictured above.  As I plan a visit to see her as well as our ancestral home, it made me think how  so many of us in my family end up back where we started.

When I was a kid, I thought for sure that I’d end up living some place far from the home I grew up in like Paris or L.A. At 16, in pursuit of my quest, I spent a year in Brazil as an exchange student but ended up next door to a town called Americana, named for it’s founders who hailed mostly from the Southern states of the USA, just like my ancestors.  Since then, I’ve never lived more then an hour from my old stomping grounds where my parents and a lot of my old high school paraphernalia still reside.  None of my four siblings have strayed far from the family hearthstone either.  One is as close as 15 minutes from my parents, another as far as an hour and a half.

I think I’ve inherited this desire to stay close to my roots from my ancestors on both sides.  My grandfather, Alonzo Walton lived the last 25 years of his life on a tract of 150 acres of Ozark land he spent a life time accumulating.  He shared the tract with his brother, his sister, and his nephew.  Before retiring to his childhood home in Arkansas, he lived in New Jersey, less than 10 miles from his daughter and five grandchildren (including me).  If it hadn’t been for his Air Force duties stationing him on McGuire’s Air Force Base, I’m sure my grandfather would have never left Arkansas.

I loved growing up with my grandparents so close by.  They let me wait on customers in their candy store, eat more than my share of Reggie bars (remember those?) and Slim Jims, but most importantly they told me their stories and brought me to their childhood homes in Arkansas and Oklahoma.   I got to walk through my great grandfather Bud’s garden with him, his old shotgun slung over his shoulder and  eat my great grandmother Marie’s delicious buttermilk pancakes, memories to this day I consider my greatest treasures.

The story is similar on my father’s side of the family.  My father lived in a house on property that once belonged to my great great grandfather, Col. W.R.  Stuart.  Census records show that his cousins, the Stuart Smiths lived just down the road.  My grandfather, Martin Ford was also born in that seaside town, Ocean Springs, Mississippi as was his mother, Josephine Burton Ford.  And her mother, Temple Burton lived all of her free life there (she was born a slave), died there, and is buried there in the same cemetery with the colonel, their son, Alfred, and the colonel’s wife, Elizabeth.  That’s some interesting eternal company – a master, his slave/mother to his children, one of those seven children, and his wife who couldn’t bear him any children.

Whether you’re Dorothy or Toto, a master or slave, I guess there’s just no place like home.

Evergreen Cemetery, Ocean Springs, where my great great grandparents Temple Burton and Col. W.R. Stuart, their son, Alfred Stuart, and the colonel's wife, Elizabeth McCauley Stuart rest. (photo by Terry Linder)

Celebrating Kwanzaa (and Shakespeare)

My daughters celebrating the last night of Kwanzaa, 2008

This is the second year in a row that our family is celebrating Kwanzaa. My daughters love taking turns lighting the beautifully carved kinara and drinking from its matching unity cup at the beginning of each of the seven nights of the ceremony. My husband loves helping them with the kinara and I love setting out all the Kwanzaa symbols on the mkekes that my daughters made out of construction paper last year.

We’re building our own traditions as we go along into this 40 year old celebration of African American heritage, one of which is to go around the table and say what the principle of the evening means to us. (Kwanzaa is based on seven principles: umoja - unity, kujichagulia – self-determination, ujima - collective work and responsibility, ujamaa - cooperative economics, nia – purpose, kuumba – creativity, and imani – faith).

Since we’re still new at Kwanzaa, I wanted to make sure the girls remembered the real purpose of the celebration which is not, as I’m sure they hoped, another way of getting more gifts. So on the first night this year, I asked them if they knew why we celebrated.

“Family unity,” the youngest exclaimed.

“To honor our African ancestors,” the oldest one added.

Both right. For me it’s to reclaim what we lost in the middle passage when our ancestors were brought here as slaves: our African language, our African traditions and our African names.

My youngest daughter wanted to know if Tempy was really my great great grandmother’s name since our ancestor’s African names were lost. It’s a good question. While I know from census reports that Tempy was born in Louisiana and not Africa, there’s no way for me to know who gave Tempy her name, if it was her parents who could have been more closely connected to their African roots or if it was her white master. Her last name, Burton was most likely her first master’s surname, something I’m still investigating. I’ve seen some documents where she is referred to as Tempy Burton Stuart, the final name belonging to her final masters, Elizabeth and Col. W.R. Stuart. But it’s the Burton name that has endured and wherever it came from, it’s weaved its way through our family tree. Burton was my great grandmother Josephine’s surname, my great uncle’s first name, and my father’s middle name.

My family continues this tradition of honoring our ancestors on both sides of our tree by carrying on their names. My youngest daughter and I have the same middle name, shared with my maternal grandmother, Louise Walton. My oldest daughter’s middle name honors my maternal great grandmother, Marie Anderson as well as my mother in law, Claire Marie Kurtti. Incidentally, my great grandmother Marie’s real name was Lucy, but she didn’t like it so she changed it. That’s self-determination for you, or kujichagulia – Kwanzaa’s second principle.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked in Shakespeare’s play with the profundity reserved for teenagers hopelessly in love. For her and Romeo, their last names sealed their tragic fates. For Malcolm X, his last name Little, was the sore reminder of the man who held his ancestors in bondage, so he dropped it and went with X instead. For Temple Burton, her last name let her Civil War era world know who she belonged to. For me, my last names Burton, Stuart, Ford and now Kurtti are a road map over the terrain my family has traveled through slavery into emancipation, along the craggy paths of reconstruction and now in the uncharted waters of the present where, with all of this history blowing at my back, I can move forward with a quick and certain step and decide for myself who I will be.

For more information about Kwanzaa, check out the official website at www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org.

Winter Solstice – Hope in the Fire

Josephine Burton Ford's glass

My great grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford's glass

Tempy Burton's glass

My great great grandmother, Tempy Burton's glass

Just in time for winter solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year, my cousin gave me an invaluable gift. She called with news that she has the pictured decorative glasses that once belonged to our great great grandmother, Tempy Burton and our great grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford.

She took them out of the house where our grandmother used to live in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina hit. I never even knew the glasses existed.

While I’ve seen pictures of Tempy as a slave in Mississippi, I’ve never seen a picture of Josephine. This glass is the first tangible item of Josephine’s that I’ve come across. Up until now, she’s been a statistic on a few census reports and a marriage certificate, a shared name with my father, Joseph Burton Ford. But with this discovery, she’s a real woman who according to the inscriptions on the glass was sometimes called Josie Ford and in 1905 visited Mt. Clemens, Michigan. Maybe she drank from that glass every night with dinner to be reminded of that town in Michigan known as Bath City because of its mineral waters or maybe she took a ceremonial sip from it just once a year on a special occasion. Maybe, she guarded the glass behind lock and key like my grandmother, Lillie Mae did and only brought it out at the request of inquisitive relatives.

Grandma Lillie Mae showed me a similar kind of glass trimmed with gold on a visit almost 15 years ago. She barely let my fingers graze the gold trim before she quickly returned it to the curio cabinet where she kept it and all of her other treasures literally under lock and key. I’d gone to see her at her home just outside of the French Quarters on the eve of my wedding with the express purpose of finding out about our family’s history. All I left with were a few scribbles on my notebook, an indecipherable tape recording, and a distaste for her house. It was in bad shape. Her cat and the detritus he liked to drag in from outside didn’t help nor did her penchant for hanging onto everything from 40 year old Christmas cards to old newspaper clippings. The house’s sagging porch and Grandma’s backhanded greeting of, “Is that you Dionne? You look like you’ve gained a little weight,” weren’t that welcoming. Grandma Lillie Mae and her house were a lot alike: hard to take, but enduring. Both managed to shelter five children, safeguarded our family’s treasures and weathered innumerable hurricanes including Katrina. Now, they’re both gone.

Grandma Lillie Mae’s house burned down this weekend. Grandma wasn’t in it (she died in May at the age of 98), but my uncle was. That’s why my cousin, Shawnique was really calling, to tell me her dad, my uncle, Henry suffered burns bad enough to put him in the hospital until the New Year. I’m praying for his speedy recovery. While I can’t say I’m sorry to see that old house go, I am sorry that my cousin and I, born only a month apart, who used to write each other with the same frequency that people now update their facebook status had to be reunited under the veil of bad news. We said we’d stay in better touch after seeing each other at Grandma Lillie Mae’s funeral back in May and indeed we have, sending a text here and there, trying to make plans for a visit. Now this.

It isn’t lost on me that this discovery about Josephine and Tempy’s glasses came on the heels of the fire.

Winter solstice ceremonies often involve fire, a symbolic cleansing to clear a path for hopes in the coming year. So, I’m hoping our family fire holds promise of renewed health for my uncle, renewed alliances for Shawnique and me, and renewal of our shared history through more discoveries about Tempy, Josephine and the rest of our clan.

Here’s to hope in the fire – Happy Winter Solstice everyone.

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