Motivational Monday: 12 Years A Slave

In preparation to see the film, Twelve Years a Slave, I decided to read the slave narrative on which it was based.  I first learned about slave narratives in college  and read several of these first person accounts of slavery in a course on African American history.  So essential to our American history, I tried to read as many as I could like Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Jacobs’s. But never did I come across Solomon Northup’s amazing story that he tells in his autobiography.

I was awed by his full life as a free man in upstate New York , the deception that led to his enslavement and his years of bondage in Louisiana, the same place my ancestors were enslaved.  I’d never read a slave narrative that described so deftly the full of breadth of slavery  or the particulars of it in that deepest part of the south.  Northup’s  descriptions of what it takes to grow sugar and cotton, from planting to picking, felt almost as punishing as the beatings he endured. I felt I got a glimpse of what life may have been like for my own enslaved ancestors.

My third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton and some of her children spent part of their lives enslaved in Attakapas now encompassing St. Mary and St. Martin parish in Louisiana.  In his book, Solomon Northup mentions his owner hiring him out for a job in St. Mary’s.  He speaks of joining other slaves for this job, two of whom are owned by Stewart.  According to an 1850 Federal Census slave schedule, my great, great-grandfather Col. W.R. Stuart (often mispelled Stewart) owned  59 slaves in West Baton Rouge, not terribly far away from St. Mary.  Incidentally, Stuart makes an appearance in the Mississippi slave narrative of a Nat Plummer who had been enslaved in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.     Interesting as well was that Solomon Northup’s first owner was a Baptist preacher name William Ford.   My great-grandfather, James Ford was also a preacher, but with the Colored Methodist Episcopal church. Born around 1860 in Mississippi, it’s possible that James Ford was born into slavery.   But I don’t know about my Ford roots before emancipation. I have a lot more digging to do to find where they lead. Researching black ancestry can be challenging and often times over the years, I’ve thrown in the towel temporarily. Moments like the rediscovery of Northup’s quintessentially American narrative, the prominence it is being given through Steve McQueen’s film, and the parallels between it and my own family’s history reinvigorate me.

Since I finished Solomon’s story, I’ve cracked open the “Ford” binder in my office and am rereading what I’ve gathered so far about my great-grandfather, James.  I’ve also done more digging into the people who owned Eliza and some of her children.  According to a newspaper ad that my great, great- grandmother Tempy Burton wrote to try and find her family, Dr. Robert C. Hilliard  owned her sisters Polly and Liberia. (Liberia was freed as a child). Just this weekend as 12 Years a Slave was premiering in select cities, I received a copy of Hilliard’s papers from the University of Texas at Austin.  Included was a list of slaves.  On it was the name Polly.

I can’t tell for sure if this is my second great grand auntie, Polly, but I certainly will keep trying to reclaim her.

Dr. Sue Eakin, the woman who was largely responsible for getting Northup’s story back into the literary cannon, dedicated about 70 years of scholarship to Northup and republishing his story.  Let’s hope it doesn’t take me that long to find more about Tempy’s family.

Check out Dr. Eakin’s website and blog with posts written by descendants of the people in 12 Years A Slave including Solomon Northup’s third great-grandson!

list of slaves from Robert C. Stirling papers archived at the University of Texas, Austin. On the last page, it says the slaves belonged to a Dr. W. E. Walker.  Perhaps this is Stirling's in-law - his wife's maiden name was Walker.

list of slaves from the Robert C. Hilliard papers archived at the University of Texas, Austin. On the last page, it says the slaves belonged to a Dr. W. E. Walker of Evergreen Plantation, St. Martin Parish. Perhaps this is Stirling’s in-law – his wife’s maiden name was Walker.

Motivational Monday: Marching on Washington

The only bad thing about my recent trip to Brazil was the timing.  While my family and I were there, Americans were marking the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  I wasn’t at the first March in 1963 because I wasn’t born yet.  So, I hoped to be at this one with friends from my Unitarian Universalist congregation in Montclair and from Coming to the Table, an organization that brings together the descendants of slaves and slave owners in order to heal the historic harms of slavery. These are two groups near and dear to my heart that inspire me.

Coming to the Table was inspired by the vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his historic March on Washington speech that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” On August 28th, the same day the march happened in 1963 and 50 years later, an essay that I wrote came out in MOREmagazine. My essay is about the relationship with my “linked descendants,”  the people whose ancestors once owned my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton. So, I guess in a way, even though my body was in Brazil, a part of me did make it to the march. And somehow, while I did not orchestrate it, my UU friends met my Coming to the Table friends and marched together.  That’s some serious synchronicity.

My friends, Phoebe Kilby, from Coming to the Table, and Emilia Colon from the Undoing Racism Committee at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair.  They were together at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that took place last week.

My friends, Phoebe Kilby, from Coming to the Table, and Emilia Colon from the Undoing Racism Committee at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair. They were together at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that took place last week.





Me and my essay in the September issue of MORE magazine on news stands now! (Photo courtesy of Greer Burroughs)

Me and my essay in the September issue of MORE magazine on news stands now! (Photo courtesy of Greer Burroughs)



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?

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 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?

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