Lately, I’ve felt too overwhelmed to focus on digging up any more of my roots. Instead, I’ve been digging through my present, trying to unpack the last boxes in our house from our move last year, get my youngest daughter to part with clothes crammed into her closet that are too small, and be a good example by parting with things in my closet I haven’t worn since the 90s. This week, I started wading through my overstuffed inbox (I didn’t realize gmail would let you store 3,500 messages). In the process, I discovered a few genealogy gems sent as email notifications from sites like Our Black Ancestry, and Coming to the Table that brought me back from the brink of giving up.
There was a link to an article about Oliver Cromwell, not the English one, but a free black man who fought in the American Revolution and received a belated honor for it over a hundred years later. He was from the same rural county in New Jersey where I grew up. There was another posting about grave dowsing, a possible method of detecting the sex and age of the occupant of an unmarked grave. That’s good to know for the next time I visit Ocean Springs, Mississippi where my great, great-grandmother is buried. There was an unmarked grave next to hers that I suspect may be my great-grandmother, Josephine. Then, on Bernice Bennett’s genealogy radio show, her guest, an expert on Louisiana records gave a great tip for trying to locate enslaved people in that state – check church records. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge has even compiled a volume of these records called “Individuals Without Surnames.” I’m going to try this to help locate my enslaved third great, grandmother Eliza Burton.
Truthfully, it is Eliza as much as my chores that’s had me overwhelmed. I know it was pure luck to even find out her name, but I want more. I’m afraid that her name is all I might ever get. But with these church records, I have renewed hope.
Is there a brick wall you’ve run into recently that has stopped you in your tracks? What will it take for you to try to climb it?
Documents and artifacts I've acquired during the search for my family's history were featured in the Back to School 2012 edition of Montclair Magazine.
I want to thank the Montclair Magazine for the beautiful spread in their latest addition highlighting documents and artifacts I’ve acquired during the search for my family’s history and some of the resources I’ve used to find them. The photographer had the great idea to spread out a bunch of my most treasured documents, like the newspaper ad my great, great-grandmother Tempe Burton placed in the Lost Friends column looking for her family who she’d been separated from through slavery. Then, she took separate pictures of other items like the silver child’s cup given to me by descendants of the family that owned Tempe and a letter written by my fourth great-grandfather and made into a pillow by my artistic cousin, Monique. My town boasts a diverse citizenry from astronauts to actors so I’m humbled Montclair Magazine found room to highlight genealogy via my family’s history.
Today on my way to get the newest member of our family, an Aussiedoodle puppy, I got a chance to meet my oldest known ancestor. I’m standing next to a miniature profile of my fourth great-grandfather, Doctor Alexander Stuart archived at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The profile was painted by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Memin, a French portraitist known for his profiles of Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere among other early American luminaries. Thanks to my niece, Flannery Silva for connecting me to her colleague, Benjamin Levy, an assistant curator at the museum who graciously displayed the drawing for my family and me to view.
My family and me on a post vacation field trip to the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.
This year, as in years past, we had a five generation vacation on Hilton Head island. I’ve been taking this trip to the Low Country with my family for the past decade, the generations growing over the years.
My husband and I tend to drive because flights are expensive and we have a lot of accoutrements like boogie boards, shovels for the sand and this year, lacrosse sticks since my daughter is learning this game invented by Native Americans. On the way down, we’re too excited for our vacation to get started to make any stops, but on the way back, we like to break up the sadness of our vacation’s end and the monotony of driving home by a post vaca field trip. In the past, we’ve stopped at the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Monument and the National Archives. But this year, we stopped at the Maryland Historical Society to do a little family digging.
My fifth cousin alerted me to the fact that extracts from a Stuart family bible, my paternal ancestors, were in the historical society’s library. So, after driving eight hours up route 95, we stopped in Baltimore. I sifted through ancient wooden boxes with peeling parchment inside trying to find the family Bible extracts while my husband and daughters walked through the museum. In one of the exhibits, they ran into John Wilkes Booth, whose family was from Maryland and a man who had fought in the War of 1812. The veteran said something like 20 percent of the combatants of that war were Africans. Never learned that (or about the War of 1812 for that matter) in my history class. The 200 year-olds wandering around the exhibits were actually the Maryland Historical Society Players who act out and interpret parts of Maryland History. My own family’s history seemed to be coming to life in the reading room, albeit not so dramatically, rather with serendipity.
As I leafed through the papers of Sarah Elizabeth Stuart, I discovered that this woman was a genealogist. She didn’t seem much interested in my family’s history – after about a half hour of searching, I realized the family Bible extracts were submitted by someone else – a female family member with a different surname. But Sarah’s meticulous records of other family’s lineages were arranged in neat piles and stuffed into thin brown envelopes with typed written requests for her services attached. One such request was from an officer of the Daughters of the American Revolution who had used her services to track people’s Revolutionary War ancestors several times before. I wonder if Sarah and I are actually related and what the going rate was for a genealogist back then.
The Israel Crane House, part of the Montclair Historical Society, was built in 1796.
Last Saturday, a man I’ll call Jake who grew up in my new house showed up at my front door with his teenaged son. This happened to me at our old house too – twice. I must be sending messages through the ether: come tell me your story and that of my new home. And so, he did. Jake’s dad was handy and made the built in cabinets in the basement, a cedar closet and even a flagstone porch, one of the things that sold me on the house. Jake and his five siblings spent countless hours sliding down the hefty wooden banisters, (something I’ve banned my kids from doing) and playing with their dog in the back yard (something my kids can’t wait to do). He had a funny story about his sister getting locked in her bathroom (now my girls’) their first night in the house and his dad chiseling away at the jam to free her. (There is still a notch in the wood). His mother was an avid gardener and I am the benefactor of all her hard labor: The apple tree she planted is starting to drop hard green fruit that will ripen as the weather warms. Her lillies are just starting to stretch their orange faces toward the sun. From her peonies, I’ve clipped two full bouquets. But the best part of the visit was when he went to his old bathroom and looked at himself now in his 40s in the same mirror where he learned to shave as a teen, probably around his son’s age. My husband didn’t skip a beat. He told him to take the mirror. It was his after all. Maybe some day, his son will learn to shave in it too. Nothing better than returning something to its rightful owner.
Knowing the history of a house I find grounding. It gives me a sense of place, something I seem to always be reaching for. So, it seemed fortuitous that our new house is just down the street from our town’s historical society. The Montclair Historical Society is housed in part in the Israel Crane House, a Federal Revival style landmark home built by a local entrepreneur in 1796. I pass it every day as I take my daughter to school. After sleeping in a slave dwelling at another historical society back in March, I got curious about my local historic society and learned that Crane had slaves. Ever since, whenever I pass Crane’s house, I look up into the fancy lattice work on the attic windows where I imagine the slaves probably lived and I blow a kiss or smile or just say amen.
Crane had at least two slaves living in the house named Dine and Joe, but that’s the extent of what is know about them…for now. Currently, the MHS is trying to find out about more recent history of African Americans in the Crane House. They’re undertaking an oral history project about the years from 1920 to 1965 when the Israel Crane House served as the YWCA for African Americans. Luminaries from Langston Hughes to W.E.B. Du Bois came and spoke there. There will be an update on the project at MHS’s annual meeting on June 19th.
If you or someone in your family remembers the Montclair YWCA, contact the historical society and share more of the stories this house has to tell.
My 96 year-old grandmother, Louise Walton, having a swing in my backyard on Memorial Day. Granny said that her favorite thing to do at her granddad's house in Oklahoma was hop on the swing he made for her and see if she could get her feet to touch the tree branches. It's nice that she can share these memories with us as well as the swinging itself.
A letter written by Booker T. Washington in 1912 soliciting funds for the Tuskegee Institute.
About a week ago, a friend of mine called to say he had something for me. My friend, Steve is a collector of all items interesting from memorable music on vinyl to historic artifacts like the one above. His dad recently passed away, his mom preceded a few years before. He’d been busy packing up his childhood home when he found this 1912 letter to Albert Merrill of Massachusetts from Booker T. Washington asking for a donation to support the college he’d founded, Tuskegee Institute. Steve is always thinking of others, so knowing that I’ve been a collector of my own family’s history and history in general, he thought of me even in his time of grief.
The letter now hangs in my office just across from the picture of my ancestors in the header of this blog. I will treasure it not only because it was written by such a prominent African American historical figure, but because my friend Steve gave it to me.
The May 13, 1884 letter from Jefferson Davis to my great, great-grandfather, Col.W.R. Stuart, archived in the digital collection at Miami University.
There seems no end to the documentation of my great, great-grandfather’s life. Like they say at Disney World, it is a small world after all and my ancestor, Col. W. R. Stuart seems to have run across every person in it. Above is a letter written to him by the one and only president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, part of the Samuel Richey Collection of the Southern Confederacy at Miami University. Stuart was a Confederate like Davis, but the 1884 letter is a different kind of business. Davis was trying to buy a ram from the Colonel who raised them along with pecans. My cousin, Monique found the letter through a Google search while trying to find images of the Colonel’s company logo.
It would be nice to find as much information about my enslaved ancestors as I do about the people who owned them like the Colonel. I’ll keep trying. Meanwhile, as a kind of beacon of hope, I offer up the following picture of the masthead of an 1860 edition of the anti-slavery newspaper, “The Liberator.” It was given to me by my friend, Dave Pettee who I met through Coming to the Table, an organization that brings together descendants of slaves and slave holders to heal the legacy of slavery.
June 8, 1860 edition of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, "The Liberator."
Promotional picture for the 1998 documentary, "The Language You Cry In."
On Saturday, I shook off the magic dust of a week at Disney World and got back into my real life by attending the monthly meeting of my local African American Genealogy Society. Our group leader had print outs of the 1940 federal census on hand so we could all get a close up view of the details included in that 72 year-old document. Much more intricate than the ones we fill out now, the 1940 census can reveal a lot about an ancestor. She also brought along a documentary called, “The Language You Cry In.” It’s the remarkable story of how a song passed down by the women of a Gullah family in Georgia is traced back to Sierra Leone. Through a song, this American family found its roots in Africa.
I broke down in tears more than once during the viewing. Not only was it remarkable that 200 years of lost history was reclaimed through a song that a grandma sang while doing chores and playing with her offspring, but it was also inspirational. It gave me hope that I too might find where in Africa my ancestors come from.
I know I could find out by just taking a DNA test already and be done with it. And I have. But I haven’t looked at the results yet. I’m still hoping to dig up my history by what my ancestors left behind, like my grandpa’s story that got me started on this journey, my great-grandmother Josephine’s newspaper articles that make me think that writing is in my genes, and great, great-grandma Tempe’s ads looking to reunite with her family after slavery ended – another inherited trait – the need to find my people. I still have hope that some piece of paper or some story will emerge that connects me to the African country we came from.
So, I will refrain from the magic of DNA for at least another week while I follow up with a few other leads on my African ancestry. I’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for leads to your African ancestry, make sure you check out Sharon Morgan’s website, Our Black Ancestry which has tons of links to resources. And if your people are from Virginia, check out the Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer project which my friend LaKesha Kimbrough brought to my attention.
A Civil War re-enactor and program officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, McGill has slept in 29 slave dwellings in the past two years as part of his mission to preserve these mostly decaying and forgotten monuments of American history. Most recently, he slept in a cabin at Friendfield Plantation in South Carolina where first lady Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather was enslaved. Tonight will be his second time sleeping in a slave dwelling in the North. He’ll sleep in a dwelling in the attic of the historic Bush Holley house, home of the Greenwich Historic Society.Guests have sometimes joined him in his preservation sleepovers, some descendants of slaves like himself, some white. But none ever claimed their intimate connection to the experience as a descendant of a slave owner until now.
Grant Heyter-Menzes, a biographer from Canada will join McGill sleeping inside the cabin. Both Grant’s southern and northern ancestors held slaves. His ancestor, Nathaniel Lynde, who had four slaves, donated the land where Yale University stands today.
I met both men through Coming to the Table, an organization that brings together the descendants of slaves and slave owners to heal from slavery’s historical harms. I’ll be joining them and another CTTT member, Dave Pettee in a panel discussion before the sleep-in.
Check out Joe McGill’s slave dwelling schedule. And if you’d like to sleep-in to save history, send him a note. I’m sure he’d like the company.