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.

Wedding Wednesday: Genealogy Genie Strikes Again

Marriage certificate of Alfred Burton Stuart and Clara Harding.

Yesterday, our genealogy genie, Shannon made another one of our unspoken wishes come true.  She sent my cousin, Monique and I the above copy of Alfred Burton Stuart’s and Clara Harding’s marriage certificate.  Alfred B. Stuart was my great, great-uncle and Monique’s great, great-grandfather.   He was the oldest child of our shared ancestor, Tempy Burton.

The marriage certificate includes Alfred’s signature – the first time we’ve ever seen his handwriting. It also shows that the couple was married in St. Mary’s parish. From school rosters to census records, every other document we have regarding Alfred shows him in Ocean Springs, Mississippi or New Orleans.   What was he doing in St. Mary’s in 1881 and what kept him there long enough to meet a girl, fall in love and get married?

We first heard of St. Mary’s the first time we met Shannon.  Last year, she sent us a newspaper ad written by our ancestor, Tempy Burton.  In the 1891 ad, Tempy was looking for her mother and the rest of her family whom she’d been separated from through slavery and had last seen in Attakapas.  St. Mary’s parish is part of the region known as Attakapas.

Was Alfred already trying to help his mom find her people a decade before she placed that ad in the paper?  Did he travel alone the 200 miles southwest to St. Mary’s from Ocean Springs or did his mom, Tempy or anyone else in the family come with him?  I traveled alone when I made a similar kind of journey looking for my ancestors shortly after I got engaged to be married.  Before I started a new life and became a part of someone else’s family, I wanted to know more about my own. It seemed a quest for me alone at the time, but 15 years later, I’m still at it with a small army of people helping me, some of whom, like Shannon, I’ve never even met!

Finally, just how did Alfred meet Clara?  Was Franklin, the town Clara is from a stop on the way to Attakapas?  Did Alfred get sidetracked from finding his ancestors by love?

The plot thickens.

I’m not sure what Monique or I did to deserve such great unsolicited gifts as Shannon has showered on us that help us put meat on the bones of our ancestors, but we’ll take them.

Thanks Shannon!

Treasure Chest Thursday: Thanks to Ancestry.com, Another Cousin, Found!

My third cousin, Sylvia!

My cousin Monique is now the queen of all Internet searches.  It was her voracious searching that turned up my second great-grandfather’s Civil War era sword on ebay, a portrait of one of our ancestors at the Maryland Historical Society on their online database, and me on ancestry.com.  Now, she’s done it again.  Monique found another one of our cousins, again on ancestry.com.  (I think that internet genealogy site is going to have to start paying her soon – she’s a walking commercial for their services!)

Meet cousin Sylvia Smith Isabel.    She lives a short bus or train ride away in New York and is as passionate about uncovering our family’s history as Monique and I.

Keeping track of all these cousins can be confusing so here is how we’re all related:

The ancestors that all three of us have in common are Tempy Burton and Col. W.R. Stuart, aka The Colonel.  Tempy was a slave in  Elizabeth McCauley’s family.  When Elizabeth married the Colonel, Tempy was  given to the couple as a wedding gift.  Elizabeth couldn’t have any children but Tempy could and did have seven, probably all with The Colonel.  But two of her children were definitely The Colonel’s, documented through their death certificates.  They were Alfred Burton Stuart, Tempy and The Colonel’s oldest child and Josephine Burton Ford, their youngest child.  Alfred was Monique’s great, great-grandfather and Sylvia’s great-grandfather. Josephine Burton Ford was my great-grandmother.  Using the cousin calculator that makes Sylvia and Monique first cousins, once removed, Monique and I third cousins, once removed and Sylvia and I plain ole third cousins.

Two days after Thanksgiving, Monique and her family came over to our house and we had a few good hours of laughs over all the things we’ve found this past year and we were feeling pretty thankful, like we’d reached the peak of our genealogy mountain and could just take in the view.  Then, two days later, with the discovery of Sylvia, we had even more to be thankful for, and more history to uncover (her dad grew up on Alfred’s farm and told her stories of  Alf  working as an unofficial town vet – news to us!).  It feels like we’re at the beginning of another journey.

Check out the other cousin we found earlier this year, Renee Smith.

Talented Tuesday on Wordy Wednesday: My talented, prosperous ancestors

Article about the pianist, Tempe Stuart (my great-aunt) and her wealthy father, Alfred Stuart (my great, great-uncle) in the Indianapolis Freeman in 1901.

Not only is this newspaper article about my talented great-aunt Tempe Stuart a point of pride for this woman who would go on to make her living teaching and performing music, but it’s also full of information that I didn’t know about my paternal family’s ancestral home, Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I want to thank my friend, Shannon, for bringing the article to my attention.*

The article states that Tempe Stuart’s dad, Alfred was among the wealthiest colored men in the town, supplying its residents with milk.  (Not bad for a man born a slave at the end of the Civil War).  At also says that this small Gulf Coast town had about 120 “colored” families and over two-thirds of them owned their homes.   That number has to break some kind of record for black homeowners in the south during that time, just a little over 30 years after the end of slavery. Oceanspringsarchives.net contends that the number of black residents was even higher than the article suggests with 331 compared with 925 white residents, citing the federal census as the source. So, in 190o, roughly one-quarter of Ocean Springs residents were blacks and 2/3 of those blacks owned their homes.  According to US Census data from 2000, Ocean Springs now has a population of about 17,000 people and about 1200 of its residents are black.  About 72 percent of all residents own their homes.

I wonder what made Ocean Springs so conducive to property ownership for former slaves and their families?

(*I’ve gotten so used to Shannon forwarding me amazing newspaper articles about my family, that I neglected to thank her in my original post, so the asterisk refers to updated information.)

Obituary Sunday: Alfred B. Stuart’s death notice

Last week, my friend, Shannon Brock sent me a couple of death notices that she thought pertained to my family.  I’m not sure about one of them, but the following is definitely the death notice for my kin, Alfred B. Stuart. He was great, great-grandfather to  my cousin Monique and my great-grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford’s brother.  Here is the transcribed death notice as it appeared:

Times Picayune, Thursday, October 4, 1928:

STUART – On Wednesday afternoon at 4:45 o’clock.  ALFRED B. STUART, beloved father of Mrs. Lillian Boyd, Mrs. Temple Smith of New York,  one sister, Mrs. Viola Battle of New Orleans, LA. Remains to be shipped to  Ocean Springs, miss., Thursday morning, October 6, 1928 at 11 a.m. via L. & N. R.R. Funeral services Thursday afternoon 3 p.m. at St. James Church, Ocean Springs, Miss. Los Angeles, Cal. papers please copy.  Arrangement by the Geo. D. Geddes Undertaking Company.

The next week, the family published this follow up:

Times Picayune, Wednesday, October 10, 1928


WE TAKE this method to thank our many friends, both white and colored, for the beautiful floral offerings, kind words and loving care during the illness and death of our beloved brother and father, ALFRED BURTON STUART who died October 3, 1938.

The bereaved family,


Thanks again, Shannon for connecting us with more important family documents to help us in our research.

Treasure Chest Thursday: Another Stuart Paternity Proved

For just $5 bucks to the Louisiana Vital Records department, another piece of my family’s lore has gone from hearsay to verified heredity.

My cousins Monique and Renee learned about their slave and master ancestors, Tempy Burton and Col. W.R. Stuart, the same way I did – through family stories. The above death certificate confirms their oral history.  It documents that Tempy Burton and William R. Stuart are the parents of Alfred Burton Stuart, my great-uncle.   Tempy was a slave to Col. Stuart and his wife Elizabeth  when Alfred was born in 1860.  This made the colonel’s first child with Tempy his property as well. His last child with Tempy, my great-grandmother Josephine would escape this fate since she was born after the Civil War and the official abolition of slavery.

Monique and I, Tempy and the colonel’s descendants from their oldest and youngest children, were actually chilling on Monique’s deck while our daughters splashed in her pool when this proof arrived in the mail.  But we were having such a good time soaking up the summer day that we never bothered to check the mailbox.

Vital records (and family stories) are a beautiful thing.

What family lore are you trying to back up with documentation?  One of these days I’ll try to see if there is any truth to our royal Stuart blood rumor.

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