To DNA or not to DNA – That's My Question.


While everyone else in the Mid-Atlantic states braces for the 20 inches of snow we’re supposed to get stocking up on rock salt and bottled water,  I’m hunkering down with some hot cocoa and a notepad in anticpation of PBS’s FACES OF AMERICA.

The latest installment in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s successful genealogy series begins tomorrow.

According to its Facebook Fan Page, 12 celebrities submitted to DNA tests for the show: “Building on the success of African American Lives, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. turns to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore their family histories.”

I’ll be paying special attention to how DNA tests helped them do anything more than discern what part of the world they hailed from.  Maybe this will help me decide if I should take one too.

My sister and I have toyed with the idea of taking DNA tests for the past several years. I’d love to know what part of Africa our black ancestors came from.  I don’t know what keeps my sister from taking the plunge, but for myself, I think I’m a little afraid of what I might (or might not) find.  After seeing the actor, Chris Tucker’s amazing discoveries in African American Lives that revealed his royal African ancestry, I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed if a DNA test doesn’t prove my rumored  Scottish royal blood or fails to pinpoint an exact location of my African ancestry.

Maybe I’ll just leave it to chance.

I’ve already signed up for the’s contest to win a free DNA tool kit.  Some lucky winner will have it delivered by genealogy guru Henry Louis Gates, Jr. himself.  If Gates shows up at my door, I’ll have my answer.

Would you submit to a DNA test and why?

Howard Zinn – The People's Historian


Howard Zinn, popular historian, died last week before I had a chance to finish his volume, A People’s History of the United States, 1492 – Present. I’ve been reading it on and off for the past several years, packing it along in my beach bag or my carry-on to keep me company on plane trips to visit my grandparents.

I first heard of Zinn while watching the movie, “Good Will Hunting.”  Matt Damon’s character tells his psychiatrist that Zinn’s book would knock him on his ass.  The scene shown above is one of my favorites: Damon tries to impress a pretty Harvard co-ed, a battle of wits ensues,  and Damon and Ben Affleck go on to win Oscars. I looked Zinn up after that. Maybe my dusty screenplay just needed a few Howard Zinn references to pump some life into it!  None of his quotes fit into my story of a new college graduate pretending to be the daughter of a famous singer in order to advance her career. But Zinn’s work as a professor at Spellman’s all black women’s college, with the organization SNCC, and as mentor to Alice Walker fit my worldview.  He was someone I needed to read.

So far, I’m up to the chapter, “Slavery without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom.”  I can’t seem to get past a letter from President Lincoln to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune which begins,

“Dear Sir:…I have not meant to leave any one in doubt…My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery.”  Never read that about Lincoln in American history in high school.

Zinn’s concise and engaging style told history from the perspective of the everyman:  blacks and women, immigrants and factory workers, Native Americans and the poor.  Like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Classic Slave Narratives introduced to me in college, Zinn’s treatise let me imagine history from the place of my people, not just their oppressors.  It encouraged me to tell my own history.

Who else’s perspective do you think still needs telling in American history?

"Wench" – Stranger than fiction truth about slavery

Old sketch of Mount Clemens, Michigan where Temple and her daughter, Josephine visited in 1905

Just as I’m finishing up the 700-plus paged tome, The Hemingses of Monticello (only 200  more pages to go!), I’ve found another ancestor-related book to add to my research list.  This one is a début novel, Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez about masters on vacation with their slave mistresses at a resort in free state Ohio.

In an interview on NPR today, Perkins-Valdez said she got the idea for her novel after reading about Tawawa, a real resort in Ohio that was a popular place for masters to relax with their mistress slaves.  WEB DuBois mentioned Tawawa in passing in a biography, she said.

I was as intrigued listening to her describe happening upon this hidden piece of history as I was when I stumbled on to the secret of my great great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart and his slave mistress, my great great-grandmother, Temple Burton.

When the interviewer went  on to explain that Tawawa was near mineral water and people retreated to it for what they believed were its healing qualities, I almost stumbled across my own feet for real.  Temple and her daughter, my great-grandmother Josephine also traveled to a town known for  its mineral waters, Mount Clemens,  Michigan in 1905.  The premise of Perkins-Valdez’s historical novel made me wonder if Temple had ever visited Mount Clemens or anywhere else with her master, the father of her 7 children, before he died in the late 1890s.

Masters and their slave mistresses vacationing together?  A slave having 7 children with her master even after being freed and living with him and his wife for the rest of their lives?

The truth is stranger than fiction.  I’m looking forward to both in the novel, Wench.

I’ve now come across two books that seem closely related to my family’s history.   What books best describe your family, current or in generations past?

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

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.

All Mighty Google

The Pecan, and how to grow it

Col. W.R. Stuart on the cover of a book dedicated to him.

Earlier this week with a few keystrokes of her computer, my cousin Monique found a book about our third great grandfather.  She typed in the words “Stuart” (granddaddy’s last name), “pecan” (one of the things he grew on his farm in Ocean Springs, Mississippi), and “Company” (because she figured some business operation had to sell all the crops and livestock he raised).

She was right.  In a matter of seconds, she unearthed an invaluable treasure: The Pecan, and how to Grow It, a book dedicated to our third great grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart available in the public domain through Google books. I haven’t read all 90 pages of it yet, but the picture it boasts of the Stuart Pecan Co’s exhibit at the 1833 World’s Fair in Chicago and several references to the colonel as the father of pecan culture have me hopeful.

The book could help in our search to piece together our family tree, but just as important, it’s a wonderful addition to our growing collection of family mementos. The discovery has me in awe of my cousin’s researching prowess as well as the almighty hand of Google that can reach back two centuries and connect us to our past.

It was, after all, the internet that brought Monique and I together.  (Read her earlier post on how we met). With the help of technology, we’ve been able to find in the past six months what I was not able to even approach in the decade that I was attending genealogy workshops and buckling at the knees at the the thought of all the government agencies I’d need to write or visit just to find when my ancestors died or if they had a birth certificate. Technology is awesome and our family stories are the priceless elixir that fuel it.

It was listening to her dad talk about family lore that prompted Monique to type the prophetic search term “Stuart Pecan Company.”  It was while talking on the phone to another cousin of mine just yesterday that revealed yet another family treasure, a decorative cup that belonged to our third great grandmother Temple Burton.  I’ll write more about that one next time and hopefully, through the power of iphone and wordpress,  give you a picture of it as well.

Meanwhile, I’d love to see any family treasures you’ve found and hear how you found them.

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