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.

Follow Friday: Calm after the Storm

My cousin, Shawnique Ford Richter and me a week before Hurricane Sandy with glasses that belonged to our great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton and our great grandmother, Josephine Ford.

I’m happy this Friday not to be following any storms like Hurricane Sandy or the subsequent Nor’easter that dropped about a half a foot of snow on our town, up to two feet in other areas.

I’d always wondered how my New Orleans relatives could put up with all of the Hurricanes sweeping in from the Gulf like clockwork every summer.  ”Why don’t they move somewhere above sea level,” I always wondered.  But look what good being above sea level did for us here in New Jersey.  I lost power for five days which is lucky compared to my compatriots.  Rockaway Beach in New York looks like a war zone and parts of the Jersey shore have been swallowed by the Atlantic.

Things are just starting to get back to normal here as my daughters have returned to school after missing a week and a half due to the storm and train service in our town resumed today after being suspended the past few weeks.

The only thing working for us during the power outtage was my cell phone (when I could get it charged).  I got lots of emails and text messages from friends and family checking up on me including genealogy buddies, my New Orleans cousin, Shawnique, and my linked descendants,  people who I am connected with through slavery.

Just before the storm hit, I traveled to see the latter two in Louisiana and Mississippi. Shawnique and I reminisced about her dad who just passed away in October and we marveled at our family history that he had passed on to us.  I got to have lunch with the sister of one of my genealogy buddies who worked just miles from my grandfather’s resting place where I also went to pay my respects.  After my aunt gave me a special prayer and blessing for a safe journey, I left New Orleans and continued to Canton, Mississippi for a family gathering with my linked descendants. (But not before I bought some beignets from Cafe du Monde). In the perfect bookend to that trip, I came home the following day and spoke at my town’s historical society about what I’d learned about researching African American genealogy by tracing my own roots these past few years.

Then the storm hit.

During those five days without power, oddly, I felt at peace.  Spending so much uninterrupted time with my family, when we weren’t all getting on each other’s nerves, I noticed how they all are thriving.  My daughters have inherited my husband’s sense of humor and compassion, all of them packing up stuff to give storm victims even while we were still powerless. In our community, people dug each other out of broken tree branches and offered each other a spot around their living room fire if that’s the only thing they had to share.  Through the sometimes stormy trek through  my ancestors’ history these past few years, I gained a fantastic relationship with my cousin Monique, and a budding one with my linked descendants. Maybe the calm feeling was just because power was the only thing we lost – no property damage like last year when Irene came.  That hurricane wrecked my grandma’s car which was in our driveway and a lot of our personal belongings that were in a storage facility at the time that got flooded. But I prefer to think this calm after the storm is a Sankofa thing.  Looking back at my past has put me at peace about my present and where I’m going.

My family and me at the Montclair Historical Society after my talk on African American genealogy. Photo courtesy of Tony Turner.

Memorial Monday: Saying Goodbye to our Family Griot

My uncle, Henry Ford, our family griot. (1945-2012)

On October 1st, just days before his birthday, my uncle Henry Ford passed away.  He was 66.

My uncle struggled for some time with diabetes, but his passing still came as a shock to me.  I’d just spoken to him two weeks ago and he sounded well.

Henry was a very good uncle.  He took me to the New Orleans zoo, one of his favorite places, and always made sure I had a po’ boy or some gumbo whenever I was in town.  He also indulged all of my questions about our family and drove with me on genealogy jaunts to Mississippi.  Along with his stories about our ancestors,   what I most treasure about my uncle is that he and my father visited each other even though they lived thousands of miles apart, so I got to have a good relationship with my cousins.  While on the phone with my cousin, Shawnique the other  night to express my condolences, we were able to laugh about the summer we spent in her room listening to Prince and thinking we were so grown up because our parents let us walk alone to the mall not far from her house.  During a different summer when she visited us, she joined me on my camp’s field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo.

Henry tried to help me fill in t he blanks of our past about the Colonel, Tempe and Josephine.  Now, he’s back with them all, keyed in to all of the answers, and I hope at peace.

Motivational Monday: Genealogy Gems

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?

Sentimental Sunday: My ancestors in the news

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.

Wordless Wednesday: Meeting My Ancestor at the Baltimore Museum

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.

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