The above picture was taken this weekend in Richmond, Va where I joined people from all over the country to participate in the first national gathering of Coming to the Table. CTTT is an organization that aims to address and heal the historical harms of slavery by bringing together the descendants of slaves and slave owners and, through our personal narratives, tell a more complete story of our country’s history. To get to historic Libby Hill Park overlooking the James River from the Richmond Hill retreat center where we were staying, our group of roughly 70 had to walk past the church where Patrick Henry famously proclaimed, “Give Me Liberty or give me death,” never minding that he owned slaves. We had to stand in the shadow of a monolithic statue of a Confederate Soldier that towered above us while we listened to the story of the city’s past.
The plaque that I’m leaning on explains how Richmond may have gotten its name. But what the plaque doesn’t say is that the area had belonged to Native Americans for thousands of years when Europeans arrived and that it was once the largest slave trading post outside of New Orleans. Before photographer Jane Feldman took this picture, our CTTT friends, the children of slaves, masters, and sometimes both, gathered for a healing ritual at this site. Could there be a more perfect place for us to acknowledge our complicated connection to each other as the descendants of both slaves and slave owners and try in some small personal way to heal the strain of that legacy while clasping hands, and calling the names of our ancestors out into the middle of our circle?
As a memento of our time together, CTTT member Chandler Dennis distributed a brilliant bumper sticker that read, “Creating Peace, One Cousin at a time.” (Whether we’re actually blood relatives or not, CTTT members often call each other cousins, because, in the big picture, we’re all related.) I’d like to think that more specifically, we’re reclaiming our history, one cousin at a time.
So, after our momentous weekend together, I’m motivated to spread the word and invite more people to the table. Bring your cousins.
In his historic speech given at the march on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said 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.”
Tomorrow, I’ll be traveling to Richmond, VA for the first national gathering of Coming to the Table, an organization inspired by King’s vision. I’ll be among about 70 descendants of slaves and slave owners from all parts of the country coming together at that table of brotherhood from March 16th through the 18th.
Coming to the Table is an organization that aims to acknowledge and heal wounds of racism rooted in the US’s history of slavery.
Finding and becoming a part of this organization is one of the many unexpected perks of researching my family’s history. All I really wanted to do when I set out on this journey was to discover what happened to my great-grandmother, Josephine, the daughter of a slave and master. I didn’t bank on making new friends with my far flung family members or allies in the descendants of the people who used to own my kin. And I certainly had no lofty goal of joining a group that wanted to heal the wounds of slavery. But I’m doing all three. Who says genealogy can’t be life-changing?
What unexpected bonuses have you received from researching your family’s history?
Re-posting this in honor of my daughter and great, great-grandmother:
On March 1, 1925, my great, great-grandmother, Tempe Burton died.
75 years later, my daughter, Desiree arrived.
Rest in peace, Tempe. Happy birthday, Desi!
Celebrities in this season’s latest installment of Who Do You Think You Are? aren’t the only ones getting genealogy gems. Thanks to the show’s sponsor, ancestry.com and my cousin Monique, who seems to find our far-flung relatives as easily as I breath, this week, I met, via email two new cousins from my Stuart line.
Not only did cousins Ginny and Anne come to our virtual family table with great information, like the fabulous but false family legend that our ancestor, Dr. Alexander Stuart was George Washington’s physician. They also connected me with a picture of that same ancestor. The sketch of ” Col Alexander. Stuart / of Washington’s Army” as once labeled on the painting is archived at the Baltimore Museum of Art and attributed to French portraitist, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770–1852) . Saint-Mémin fled France during the revolution, and worked as a portrait engraver in the United States creating portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among other luminaries.
Dr. Alexander Stuart was my fourth great-grandfather and, according to his son’s obituary, he did fight in the Revolutionary War. He was in the Battle of Long Island, my new cousins say, and was taken prisoner by the British. As a member of the Delaware Continental line, Dr. Stuart would have been in Washington’s Army, but no evidence suggests that he was the “old general’s” doctor.
But then again, there was no evidence supporting my grandfather’s story that his grandparents were a slave and her master until I went looking for it and found it with the help of my distant cousin and a team of virtual friends. So, I guess I’ve got some new hunting to do.
I’ll be starting with the published Delaware State Archives’ volume on military matters which my new cousins say well document our ancestor’s Revolutionary War Service.
I wonder if Princeton University will give me some kind of honorary degree for all of the hours I’ve been logging in their microfilm library.
In the past two weeks, I’ve been down there three times. (No easy feat with two kids, boxes that still need unpacking from our move and the two hour long round trip drive).
But I had to do it.
Amongst the vast records archived at Princeton’s Firestone library is a microfilm copy of the The Stirling Family papers. The Stirlings had at least three plantations in Attakapas, Louisiana which encompasses St. Martin and St. Mary parishes. They owned at least 100 slaves including my third great grandmother, Eliza Burton and some of her children. I keep returning there in hopes of finding any mention of Eliza or her family.
On my last visit, looking through the last of the five microfilm devoted to their papers, I came to the best part of the documents – the Register of Slaves. When I say best, I mean the part that holds the most promise. Emotionally, this discovery is close to the the worst part of the papers. The register shows that some of the slaves died as infants. Almost none are listed with last names. But sometimes, both the mother and father of the child are listed. Reading the register is like walking through an emotional minefield. One must proceed slowly and with caution.
But read I must. The Stirling’s meticulous record keeping of the births of their slaves could help me recover my ancestors. While an Eliza is mentioned, as well as a Tempe, Eliza’s daughter, I don’t think they are my Eliza and Tempe. The ages of these slaves would make them too young to be my people. But perhaps they’re your Eliza and Tempe. Once I figure out how to upload this 22 page file, you can check the register of slaves by clicking on the tab, “Enslaved People of Louisiana.” In the meanwhile, just shoot me an email if you want to look for your ancestors in the register and I’ll email you a copy.
I still have about a half a microfilm left to go so, after I catch my breath again from my own life and that of my ancestors, I’ll go back down to Princeton in hopes of reclaiming my people and maybe yours as well.
If ever I had a top 10 list of genealogy moments, speaking to Peter Monrose would be right up there along with finding the picture of my ancestors pictured in the header of this blog and the newspaper ad my great, great grandmother Tempy Burton wrote looking for her family whom she’d been separated from through slavery. When he was a little boy, Peter Monrose met Tempy Burton. He said he didn’t remember much about Tempy except that she was very old (probably nearing 100) and that he’d heard that her son had been lynched in the bayou near where she lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. In our brief telephone exchange, I felt like I’d reached out and touched my great, great-grandmother via his memories. From his distant recollection almost a century later, I was able to find a newspaper article that seems to corroborate the rumor of the lynching. While all knowledge about my ancestors is welcome, that discovery was bittersweet just like my connection to Peter Monrose. His distant cousin Elizabeth McCauley Stuart owned my great-great grandmother Tempy. We’re linked through slavery.
One of the things that has happened to me on this journey of researching my ancestors is that my idea of family has expanded. On the phone, he called my great, great-grandmother Aunt Tempy. Now, in grateful acknowledgement of the treasure of his shared stories, I can’t help but call him Uncle Peter.
He passed away in December. May he rest in peace.
The photos are courtesy of Peter’s daughter, Renée Monrose.
In honor of Kwanzaa, here’s a re-post on the celebration I wrote two years ago:
This is the second year in a row that our family is celebrating Kwanzaa. My daughters love taking turns lighting the beautifully carved kinara and drinking from its matching unity cup at the beginning of each of the seven nights of the ceremony. My husband loves helping them with the kinara and I love setting out all the Kwanzaa symbols on the mkekes that my daughters made out of construction paper last year.
We’re building our own traditions as we go along into this 40 year old celebration of African American heritage, one of which is to go around the table and say what the principle of the evening means to us. (Kwanzaa is based on seven principles: umoja - unity, kujichagulia – self-determination, ujima - collective work and responsibility, ujamaa - cooperative economics, nia – purpose, kuumba – creativity, and imani – faith).
Since we’re still new at Kwanzaa, I wanted to make sure the girls remembered the real purpose of the celebration which is not, as I’m sure they hoped, another way of getting more gifts. So on the first night this year, I asked them if they knew why we celebrated.
“Family unity,” the youngest exclaimed.
“To honor our African ancestors,” the oldest one added.
Both right. For me it’s to reclaim what we lost in the middle passage when our ancestors were brought here as slaves: our African language, our African traditions and our African names.
My youngest daughter wanted to know if Tempy was really my great great grandmother’s name since our ancestor’s African names were lost. It’s a good question. While I know from census reports that Tempy was born in Louisiana and not Africa, there’s no way for me to know who gave Tempy her name, if it was her parents who could have been more closely connected to their African roots or if it was her white master. Her last name, Burton was most likely her first master’s surname, something I’m still investigating. I’ve seen some documents where she is referred to as Tempy Burton Stuart, the final name belonging to her final masters, Elizabeth and Col. W.R. Stuart. But it’s the Burton name that has endured and wherever it came from, it’s weaved its way through our family tree. Burton was my great grandmother Josephine’s surname, my great uncle’s first name, and my father’s middle name.
My family continues this tradition of honoring our ancestors on both sides of our tree by carrying on their names. My youngest daughter and I have the same middle name, shared with my maternal grandmother, Louise Walton. My oldest daughter’s middle name honors my maternal great grandmother, Marie Anderson as well as my mother in law, Claire Marie Kurtti. Incidentally, my great grandmother Marie’s real name was Lucy, but she didn’t like it so she changed it. That’s self-determination for you, or kujichagulia – Kwanzaa’s second principle.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked in Shakespeare’s play with the profundity reserved for teenagers hopelessly in love. For her and Romeo, their last names sealed their tragic fates. For Malcolm X, his last name Little, was the sore reminder of the man who held his ancestors in bondage, so he dropped it and went with X instead. For Temple Burton, her last name let her Civil War era world know who she belonged to. For me, my last names Burton, Stuart, Ford and now Kurtti are a road map over the terrain my family has traveled through slavery into emancipation, along the craggy paths of reconstruction and now in the uncharted waters of the present where, with all of this history blowing at my back, I can move forward with a quick and certain step and decide for myself who I will be.
For more information about Kwanzaa, check out the official website at www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org.
I’m with Atlantic Monthly writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who describes himself as a Civil War obsessive. You can hear for yourself what he has to say about the importance of Civil War history to all of us. Since I discovered that my great, great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy while leaving at home an invalid wife, and an infant child with his slave (my great, great-grandmother Tempy), I’ve tried to learn more about this war and era, particularly what it was like for slaves at the time.
Right now, I’m reading three books that are shedding more light on that era: Adam Goodheart’s, “1861,” Charles Dufour’s “The Night the War Was Lost,” and James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.’s “An Absolute Massacre.”
What I’ve learned so far outside of the everyday Civil War wisdom is that as a slave in New Orleans, my great, great-grandmother Tempy would have had a very different experience than rural slaves or even those in other cities. According to Hollandsworth’s book, “New Orleans contained the largest, wealthiest and best educated community of free blacks in the country.” What must it have been like to be enslaved while people who looked like her were free? I’m also learning about the battle for the port of New Orleans that my great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart fought in which Charles Dufour assigns as the defining moment for the confederacy. He says it’s the battle that lost them the war.
In my great, great-grandfather’s obituary, it mentions that he was elected as a member to the Constitutional Convention of New Orleans. I hope to learn more about this convention and discover which one he was elected to since there were several.
As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, what have you been learning about your ancestors and their place in this history?
When I met my cousin, Monique a few years ago, it became quickly apparent that I was not only gaining a partner in my genealogy journey, but a close friend, like a sister. Through our friendship, I got to meet her parents and even had the great privilege of reading some of her mother’s writing about her life growing up biracial in the Bronx on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. Monique and I have visited our ancestral homes of Mississippi and Louisiana together, triumphed over genealogy finds like a newspaper article written by our enslaved ancestor, Tempy Burton, and cried over painful parts of our family’s past like a lynching. Today, we grieve a present pain, the loss of Monique’s beloved mother, Gloria Cornish Smith. Gloria is with the ancestors now, but her spirit remains here as an inspiration I’m sure to anyone who was lucky enough to meet her.