Samba Saturday: Slavery History in Brazil

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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?

Surname Saturday: digging up the root of our Burton name

Allen Burton's estate listing his slaves, including a woman named Tempy (with name spelled Tempey).

1839 listing of the slaves in Allen Burton’s estate includes a woman named Tempy, like my great, great-grandmother.

Happy Summer!  Mine has been speeding by at a breakneck pace which is why it’s taken me until the dog days to post.   But I’m not complaining.  Amid driving kids to summer camp, packing and unpacking for family trips and trying to stay submerged in water to fight the heatwave in our state, the genealogy gods still managed to throw me a bone.

Right before we took our annual family vacation to Hilton Head in late June, I tried to follow up on some things in my research I’d been neglecting.  Namely, the Thomas Burton papers.

Thomas W. Burton and his wife Nancy lived in Yanceyville,  North Carolina, from about 1850 to 1908.  His collection of papers, archived at North Carolina State University at Chapel Hill, include correspondence between Burton and family members in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama as well as missives on everything from their health to the price of slaves. Since the people first documented as owning my great, great-grandmother were also from North Carolina, and she ended up in Mississippi with a possible tie to Alabama, I figured I should check out these papers, long shot or not.  I hoped they would help me discover  how my great, great grandmother Tempy Burton got her last name.

But instead, they bored me to tears.  Except for a few interesting exchanges from a relative to Mr. Burton, pestering him for never writing, some mentions of a slave, and how the Civil War was dragging ong, the collection was mostly receipts and ledgers. Worried that I might miss a clue pertaining to my family buried in the receipts,  I tried to drum up the courage to wade through the ledgers once more stored on my laptop.  As often happens, my ennui lured me to Google.  I typed “Burton, slave owners” and “Burton slaves” into the search engine, (so similar to the search words I used to find the picture of my family in the header above).  The search returned a bunch of links like the slave narratives of Annie Burton and a doctor, William Burton (whose mom’s name was Eliza like my third great grandmother).  There was also  a link for the Digital Library of American Slavery. Compiled by the Race and Slavery Petitions Project and libraries at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, this digital collection encompasses 15,000 petitions  to Southern courts pertaining to enslaved people, their owners and free people of color in the slave owning states.  In one such petition a woman, “Tempey” is listed as Allen Burton’s slave.  (I’ve seen my great, great-grandmother’s name spelled with and without the “e”).  Among Burton’s other slaves listed were Polly, Nancy and Albert – the names of Tempy’s siblings. (Tempy had another sister, Liberia but she was freed as a child.)  Of the 50 or so other petitions I looked through on the database, this was the only one with a slave named Tempy.  The petition was made in 1839 to  Allen Burton’s estate in Alabama, two points of fact that intrigue me.  In the 1910 census Tempy lists Alabama as her father’s birth place. The filing year of the petition, 1839, was seven years before Hill Jones’ 1846 will where Tempy first shows up in a public document. I still have more work to do, but what if I’ve found the original owner of Tempy?

 

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:

Follow Friday: Family and Forgotten History


The benefits of researching my family history are too numerous to list, but one that bears mentioning is how much uncovering my family’s past has taught me things about history that I never learned in school. It wasn’t until I found a newspaper anecdote  about a party my great-grandmother Josephine threw on January 1st, 1892 did I learn the first of the year was also Emancipation Day, commemorating the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves.  I also learned that there were more slave narratives than those of famous former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs whose remarkable stories I read in college.  In the late 1930s, volunteers from the Federal Writer’s Project  collected slave narratives too, but of former slaves no one had ever heard of. Within those archived accounts is mention of my great great grandfather’s home.

So, I was so excited to learn that a forgotten history that I’ve been reading, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Written by Tom Reiss, Black Count is the real life story behind the fictional Count of Monte Cristo.  The real “count” was actually Alexandre Dumas, a general in the French Army, born to a slave woman from Haiti and a French aristocrat on the run.  His real life swashbuckling inspired the novels written by his son of the same name.

As I read The Black Count, what struck me as deeply as Reiss’s captivating account of this forgotten hero, was how much attitudes about race in France changed for the worse, minimizing the General’s place in history, his African ancestry and even how we view his famous son whose books we still read over a century later.

(Before you heard it referenced in Django Unchained, did you know that the author of the classics, the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo was of African ancestry?)

I’m also reading Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline’s novel based on a little known part of American history. From the mid 1850s to the early 1900s, the so called orphan trains took thousands of orphaned and abandoned children from the east coast to be adopted by families in the midwest. The main character in Kline’s book was one such child and her riveting past is revealed when she meets a teenager  who has spent her life in and out of foster homes.

Before I started reading her book, I had never heard about this part of American history. My husband’s paternal ancestors ended up in the midwest after immigrating to the USA from Finland.  Of course I can’t help but wonder now if the orphan train is a part of any of their history.

What forgotten history have you stumbled on while searching for your family’s past?

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!

Celebrating African American History Month at Glenfield School

Filmmaker Dawn Porter and journalist Kuae Mattox celebrating African American History Month at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, NJ (photo courtesy of Ki Keys)

Actor Andre Braugher takes questions from the crowd at Glenfield Middle School's celebration of African American History Month. (photo courtesy of Ki Keys)

Every year, my daughter’s school holds African American Career day in celebration of Black History month.  This year, they had a kickoff assembly first, which was held on Friday.  Even though the snow was falling and storm Nemo was on its way, actor Andre Braugher and filmmaker Dawn Porter still showed up and shared their remarkable success stories with over 600 attentive middle school students.

Braugher shared about his various roles from portraying a Union soldier in an all-Black regiment in the iconic film, Glory, (one of his first jobs after graduating from Juliard) to his latest TV series Last Resort, where he played the commander of a submarine. Graciously, he answered all kinds of questions including what other famous people he’d met.

“All of them,” Braugher answered, “except Steven Spielberg.”

Porter showed a clip from her latest film, Gideon’s Army, a documentary about public defenders that won the editing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  The kids’ mouths dropped to the ground when they discovered thousands of films are submitted to Sundance but only a handful are actually accepted.  You can see Gideon’s Army this summer on HBO.

The discussion was moderated by parent volunteer, Kuae Mattox, a journalist formerly with NBC and the Miami Herald. She is also president of Mocha Moms Inc., a national support group for mothers of color.

This Friday, February 15, the celebration continues when Glenfield Middle School holds its Annual African American Career Day from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m.

The event will feature African American presenters, most of whom are from the local community.  From police officers to politicians, each presenter will share his or her career story to let all students see African Americans achieving success in an array of fields.  The objective is to break stereotypes, illustrate the achievability of all professions, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity and of course to inspire.

Please come help inspire the next generation of leaders by sharing your success stories.  If you’re in the Montclair, NJ area, contact me at dionnelford@gmail.com to participate.

Follow Friday: The Legacy of Gilbert Academy, New Orleans

Marker at the site of Gilbert Academy in New Orleans, LA where my dad attended high school. (Photo courtesy of Flikr)

Last week I read Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ 2009 narrative of a Muslim family living in New  Orleans and what happened to them during and after Hurricane Katrina. In its pages, I recognized many of the places described from my own family trips to  New Orleans and more recent research jaunts into our history.  But when I got to the penultimate page, one name in particular jumped out at me: McDonogh #28, a junior high school on Esplanade.  Hadn’t my dad said he’d gone to school at McDonogh?  I finished the book then searched my computer until I found an interview with my dad a few year’s back. I’d been meaning to have another look at that interview anyway and cull it for any possible leads left unfollowed into our family’s history. Sure enough, Dad had gone to McDonogh, but it was #35,  a high school on “the infamous Rampart, a street of hookers, tailors, and pool rooms – no place to have a high school,” Dad had said.

That’s why I’d remembered it.  Dad wasn’t happy to be there.  (McDonogh #35 has since moved and become a bronze medal ranked school by US News and World Report). McDonogh was the second high school Dad attended, and he’d left his heart at his first, Gilbert Academy.

“I was lucky enough to go to Gilbert Academy in 9th grade,” Dad explained in the interview.  It was a private school for African Americans under the auspices of the Methodist Church. The academy’s history was captured by Keith Medley in a November, 1985 New Orleans Tribune article and in the book, Gilbert Academy and Agricultural College available on Google. Accordingly, Gilbert Academy began as an orphanage for the children of black soldiers who had gone to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War and never returned. Then, it transitioned to an agricultural and industrial college for recently emancipated slaves in the 1870s and was located on a former plantation near Franklin, Louisiana.   That is the same place where my second great grandmother, Tempy last saw her mom, Eliza Burton and her siblings when they were all still enslaved.  It’s also where Tempy’s son, Alfred met and married his wife perhaps while on an expedition to find his mother’s lost family.   What a small world.

Gilbert Academy would eventually move to St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans and become an elite high school for African Americans, funded by the Methodist Church.  My grandparents didn’t have much money or education to speak of, but they had religion. A devout Methodist, my grandmother  undoubtedly heard about the school at church.  Dad didn’t know how my grandmother got the money to send him to Gilbert. Most likely, my father received a scholarship.

While there, dad learned how to play the violin, something I never knew about him. Gilbert had an excellent music department and its chorus performed at the Chicago World’s Fair in the mid 30s. At Gilbert, he was also introduced to fraternities. Dad’s teacher, Mr. Kennedy was an Omega Psi Phi and got Dad involved with a high school fraternity they sponsored. Dad recalled his time with the high school fraternity fondly, especially a trip he took with them to Clark University in Atlanta.

But in 1949, only a year after enrolling, Gilbert Academy shut down. The Methodist church decided to sell the property the school was on to the Catholic archdiocese.   Dad didn’t get to graduate from Gilbert Academy, but his time  there forever linked him to fellow students like UN Ambassador Andrew Young, writers Margaret Walker Alexander and Tom Dent, and jazz pianist, Ellis Marsalis, dad of Wynton and Branford. How difficult it must have been to leave this sanctuary. While Dad may have had to leave Gilbert Academy,  Gilbert Academy never left Dad.

When he went to college on the GI bill in his mid 30s, the father of five kids by then, Dad joined a fraternity, the Alpha Phi Alphas.  I always wondered about that, why a grown man would need this brotherhood when he had a whole big family at home. Now I think I get it.  Gilbert Academy was a gem in an otherwise rocky time for my dad coming of age in segregated New Orleans, and the fraternity, a black brotherhood, was the legacy it bequeathed to him.

What impressions did your school leave on you?

Happy Emancipation Day, 2013!

My grandmother, Louise Walton and our family's dog, Sheffy.

“On January 1, 1892, Miss Josephine Burton, Ocean Springs’ charming belle gave a very nice surprise party for her pastor, Rev. I. C. Rucker, assisted by Mrs. A.B. Stuart and Miss Violet Matthews.  A collection of $6.05 was taken, after which cake and lemonade were served.”

So, 119 years ago today, my great grandmother was throwing a party with her sister, Violet and her brother Alfred’s wife.  When I first read this notice in the personal section of the Southwestern Christian Advocate’s January 14, 1892 edition, I assumed it was a regular New Year’s Day party.  But after reading the next week’s issue, I noticed how another writer, Ada Smith of Sturgis, Mississippi, referred to January 1st as Emancipation Day.  During her church’s evening service, Ms. Smith stated that a professor read and explained the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and freed all slaves. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the historic document.

Since her mother and brother were born into slavery, I have a feeling that my great-grandmother, Josephine was celebrating the signing of that monumental document as much as she was the beginning of a new year and her beloved pastor. Josephine was also a devout Christian, her husband, James was a Methodist Episcopal minister, so perhaps the party was also an extension of Watch Night.

Methodism founder John Wesley originated Watch Night services in the mid-18th century, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal services, according to the United Methodist website. But Watch Night has a  special significance in in the African-American community dating back to the days of slavery.
At the end of the year, owners tallied their property and often sold slaves to pay debts, the website said. New Year’s Eve was often the last night a family of slaves would be together.  Then, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which was set to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863, slaves sat up the night before, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.

Even though I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal church and went to church on New Year’s Eve with my parents, I never knew the history behind Watch Night connected to slavery.  I only learned of that part last night because some friends at Coming to the Table mentioned how they would be participating in Watch Night as well as the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I wonder why the slavery piece of the Watch Night tradition was never addressed in my AME congregation? Was it deliberate or simply never passed down from one generation to the next and, like a faulty link, broke the chain of this history?

This can easily happen.

I thought I knew all there was to know about my grandmother.  I lived just a few miles from her growing up and spent most summer days with her until I was 11.  She was like a second mother. So, I was shocked to learn several new things about her while she was visiting with me this holiday season – things that I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for my new dog.

On the first night of Kwanzaa while eating dinner, Granny commented that our new dog was so big, he reminded her of the pony she had as a girl.  I never knew she had a pony.  It was a Shetland pony she said, which is funny since my dog’s name begins with the same “she” sound. Her pony was her transportation to school. She hated when she had to miss school because first off, she liked school and second, it usually meant she had to stay home and slaughter the pigs on her family’s farm.  She thought of them as pets, not food.  In solidarity with her condemned bovine friends,  she swore she’d never eat chitterlings the way her school pals did, but  eventually, she caved.  Indeed it was my grandmother who gave me my first (and last) taste of pig intestine.

I also never knew that my grandma could handle a gun.  She learned how to use a winchester rifle when she was about seven she said for hunting rabbits.  My grandma was a regular Laura Ingalls Wilder, just black and from Oklahoma.  Had my dog not cozied up to her during dinner, these details about my grandma’s first decade of life, the time she refers to most often now that she is nearing 100, would have been entirely lost.  And to think, I didn’t even want a new dog.

How are you celebrating Emancipation Day?

Sources: The Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 14, 1892 and January 21, 1892.

Motivational Monday: Stoking the Family Flame

My daughters with Brian d'Arcy James who plays, Bick in GIANT at the Public Theater.

Yesterday over lunch, I got to talk to the grand niece of Edna Ferber, author of Giant, Show Boat and So Big. All epic family stories, it’s no wonder that Ferber’s grand niece, Julie Goldsmith Gilbert would want to keep her great aunt’s literary legacy alive.  Julie wrote her great aunt’s biography and championed Giant’s move from the page to the stage.  Thanks in part to Julie’s stewardship and the generous support of my in laws, Ted and Mary Jo Shen, Giant the musical is at the Public Theater in New York City until December 16th.

Julie’s passion about her great-aunt’s literary legacy is I’m sure what made my sister-in-law get us together for lunch.  (My sister-in-law has a gift for matching people.  She’s the one who introduced me to her brother, my husband of 16 years!) She recognized in Julie and me  two keepers of the family flames.

I left lunch inspired to attend to some of my own ancestry business that I’ve been neglecting and set an information gathering goal for the week.   I want to follow up on a lead I have on my great-grandfather, James Ford.

The man who gave me my last name was a reverend with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Mississippi. While his name appears in several issues of the ME Church’s official newspaper, the Southwestern Christian Advocate,  from the late 1800s to the beginning of the 1900s, he disappeared from  records after the 1920 census.  After checking out the United Methodist church’s official website, which gives an overview of the church’s split over slavery, I discovered they have a repository called the African American Methodist Heritage Center.  Turns out the Center is located at Drew University Library,  a stone’s throw from the town I grew up in.  The kind librarian there forwarded a few pages from the church’s 1924 Mississippi Annual Conference journal.  James Ford was listed among the honored dead.  According to the journal, my great-grandfather died in 1923, just a year after his wife, my great-grandmother Josephine.

Unfortunately, the state of Mississippi couldn’t locate his death certificate. I ordered it in hopes of learning his parent’s names which are sometimes listed on death certificates.  But I’m not deterred. Later this week, I’m heading over to Drew to see this Conference journal in person.  There is nothing like seeing an original document up close to illuminate an otherwise hidden clue, forge a new path to discovering more about an ancestor, or just reignite a spark to keep the ancestry fire burning.

What will you do this week to stoke your family’s flame?

*note – Edna Ferber’s book is Show Boat, not Showboat as written in the original post.

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