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.

Follow Friday: Stirling Family Register of Slaves

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.

Follow Friday: Finding my Enslaved Third Great-Grandmother

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wNklqfgInw&feature=geosearch]

Yesterday, I shared with you all that I’d found another generation of my family tree.  I now know that Eliza Burton was my third great-grandmother, a slave on a plantation in Attakapas, Louisiana and was owned by a Dr. Sterling.  Along with my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton, Eliza had three other children and two sisters. I know all of this because Eliza’s daughter, Tempy told me so in her own words.  in 1891, Tempy placed an ad in the Southwestern Christian Advocate looking for her family, separated by slavery.  So how did Tempy’s 120 year-old petition to find her family then find me, her great, great-granddaughter now?   The following e-mail from my new friend, Shannon (reproduced here with permission and edited for privacy) explains it all:

Basically, I’m fascinated by historic newspapers.  My husband does a great deal of historical work, and before I moved (to Louisiana) to marry him, I was a curator at a  museum in New Orleans.  So I subscribe to Ancestry, GenealogyBank, and – although this will surprise you as the place where I found Tempy’s advertisements – the New England Historic Genealogical Society, which has a fantastic run of 19th century newspapers (from all over the country, not just New England) available on its website.  One of the newspapers is the Southwestern Christian Advocate.  I came upon the Lost Friends column purely by accident, while searching for something else.  It is compelling, if harrowing, reading.  Sometimes if a story really grips me, I’ll do a Google search to see if any of the person’s descendants are looking for them.  Sometimes I’ll lurk on the Afrigeneas board to see if I can find someone who connects – I’m white but an ardent admirer of the work that Afrigeneas does – but until today I’ve never actually found anyone looking for the writer of the article.  So, this morning, I was just in the mood to read Lost Friends, and I picked one entirely at random, and it was Tempy’s, and it gripped me.  And there was your cousin’s old posting (on Afrigeneas) looking for information about her.  I think it must have been fate, pure and simple!

I joined the New England Historic Genealogical Society within 24 hours of getting Shannon’s email and like Shannon, I’m pretty hooked on their newspaper collection.  If you haven’t already, leave a message on AfriGeneas or any other genealogy board that might help you find your ancestors.  They want to find you as much as you want to find them.

What historic society have you joined and which of their resources do you most utilize?

Treasure Chest Thursday: Another enslaved ancestor found!

“I desire to find my people.” That’s how my great, great-grandmother Tempy Burton begins her June 4, 1891 ad in the Southwestern Christian Advocate.  Known simply as the Southwestern, this paper was started in 1877 and covered the African Methodist Episcopal community.  Like Tempy, I come from the AME tradition. I was baptized in the AME church where my father is now an ordained minister. Also like Tempy, I desire to find my people.  That desire led me to my cousin Monique who I met via email a year ago on June 3, just shy of the anniversary of Tempy’s ad.  Great minds think alike because  initially, Monique thought we should put an ad in an Ocean Springs, Mississippi paper where our people are from with the headline “Looking for the Burtons.”  But we figured a blog was cheaper with a farther reach, so Finding Josephine was born. Thanks to the Southwestern and a good Samaritan named Shannon,  we all found our people.

The Southwestern ad appeared in a column called “Lost Friends” which helped former slaves find their lost family, separated by slavery.  Tempy’s  humble, heartfelt petition names her mother, Eliza Burton, her sisters, Nancy, Polly and Liberia Burton, a brother, Albert Burton, and two aunts, Peggie Manrow and Bettie Matthews.

I’ve clung to the hope that I would be able to take my research back another generation and find Tempy’s parents, but I knew the chances were slim.  Like Tempy,  her parents  would inevitably be slaves whose names and places of birth were a mystery to me. If I did find either of them, I figured it would come way down the research road when my kids were older and I could steal a few days to take a genealogy jaunt to North Carolina where Tempy’s owners come from.  Even then, they would only turn up after many sweaty afternoons in the bowels of a municipal office, bent over ancient, dusty deed books or wills. (I can hear all you genealogy junkies out there getting excited just at the thought!) But instead, with one email from a woman I’ve never met who loves historic newspapers, impassioned pleas, and combing the AfriGeneas African-American genealogy website, I’ve reclaimed an entire generation of my enslaved ancestors:  A third great-grandmother, two third great aunts, three great, great-aunts, and a great, great-uncle.  Now, I even know the names of the people who owned this earlier generation of my Burton family.  The ad said, “My mother, sister Nancy, Bro. Albert, aunt Bettie, and aunt Peggy lived on the same plantation and belonged to Dr. Sterling’s people.  Liberia and Polly belonged to Dr. Robert Hilyard.  Liberia was salivated when a child.  I left them in Attakapas, La.” (So there is still a dusty records office somewhere in Louisiana in my future where I will be looking for Drs. Sterling and Hilyard and deciphering the meaning of “salivated.”)

I barely dared to believe I’d  find Tempy’s parents.  But I  never imagined I’d read Tempy’s personal thoughts in print. A slave until she was in  her 40s,  Tempy never learned how to read or write. (A 1900 census states she could do neither). But someone (probably her son, Alfred or daughter Josephine who lived near their mom in Ocean Springs, Mississippi) carefully wrote her petition and sent it to the Southwestern. And Shannon, 120 years later, struck by Tempy’s quest, took a chance, checked out the AfriGeneas message boards to see if anyone today was looking for her the way she looked for her people back then.

And here we are.

The treasure for me is not only that I now know the names of  my great, great-grandmother Tempy’s mother, siblings, and aunts but that the kindness of strangers that keeps raining down on me on this journey has helped me make a new friend.  She needs her own post, so I’ll tell you about Shannon and how she found Tempy’s ad through the New England Historic Genealogical Society next time. Until then, here’s Tempy’s ad and the follow-up:

Southwestern Christian Advocate  – June 4, 1891:

Mr. Editor:

I desire to find my people.  Mother’s name was Eliza Burton, sisters, Nancy, Pally, and Liberia Burton.  I had a brother Albert Burton who died, and two aunts, Peggie Manrow and Bettie Matthews.  My mother, sister Nancy, Bro. Albert, aunt Bettie, and aunt Peggy lived on the same plantation and belonged to Dr. Sterling’s people.  Liberia and Polly belonged to Dr. Robert Hilyard.  Liberia was salivated when a child.  I left them in Attakapas, La.  Any information concerning them will be thankfully received.  Address Mrs. Tempy Burton, Ocean Springs, Miss., care W.R. Stewart, Esq.

***********************
Southwestern Christian Advocate – August 13, 1891:

Dr. A.E.P. Albert:

Dear Brother:  The Southwestern has been the means of the recovery of my sister, Mrs. Polly Woodfork and eight children.  I owe my joy to God and the SOUTHWESTERN, and wish the editor success in getting 1,000 cash subscribers in the next thirty days.  I will do all in my power to get all the subscribers I can.  God bless Dr. Albert and crown him with success.    Mrs. Tempy Burton

*My new friend’s name is Shannon, not Sharon as I initially wrote.  All the euphoria over the find clouded my brain.  Sorry Shannon!

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