Wordless Wednesday: Mapping your support of Bill HR40 Study of Reparations

More than 500 people from 44 states (and a few other countries) have signed a petition telling Congress to Pass Bill HR40 to study reparations for slavery.  Thank you.  Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia and Maine, won't you sign too?

my push pin map of  states represented by signers of Coming to the Table’s petition telling Congress to pass HR40 to study reparations for slavery.

More than 500 people from 44 states (and a few other countries) have signed Coming to the Table’s petition telling Congress to Pass Bill HR40 to study reparations for slavery. Thank you!

Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia and Maine, won’t you sign too?

Motivational Monday: Pass Bill HR40 to study reparations


Have you seen the June Atlantic Monthly cover article, The Case for Reparations?

I saw it over Memorial Day weekend while I was attending the National Gathering of Coming to the Table. This organization is composed of both descendants of slaveholders and the enslaved and aims to heal the historic harms of slavery.   It might sound hard to believe but, I was actually in my second reparations session of the weekend when I learned of the article.  (The Gathering facilitators polled participants beforehand to see what kind of subjects they’d want us to focus on during our weekend together.  Reparations was so popular, that our planning committee felt two “reparations” sessions were needed.)

I helped facilitate the first session and was inspired to hear the variety of forms reparations might take, in particular how my co-facilitator put the idea into action.  After connecting with descendants of the people her ancestors enslaved, she set up a scholarship fund to help support those descendants’ and others’ educations.

In the next session, my cousin pulled the Atlantic Monthly article from her bag.  The facilitators had already read it as had many of the other participants. As we went around the table talking about our own experiences of ancestors lost to lynchings, land lost to shady dealings, faith lost to the forced and unpaid labor of generations of people without recompense, all of us agreed that at the very least, Congress should pass bill HR40  to study reparations.

As I drove the six hours home from our conference site at Eastern Mennonite University campus in Harrisonburg, VA past rolling hills, pregnant pastures, grazing cows and horses, I felt inspired. I’d arrived at the conference feeling lackluster.  As a board member, I had participated in strategic planning sessions before the conference got started where we brainstormed ideas on how to partner with organizations that lined up with our missions and values while also getting the word out about our young organization. I couldn’t imagine how we would do this. But then, I could never have imagined being on any board or that an organization like Coming to the Table would even exist.  I ended up at Coming to the Table because I was researching my family’s history and came across descendants of the family that had enslaved my ancestors:

  • which led me to an article about the kin of slaves and masters, featuring my reparations co-facilitator of the education fund fame
  •  which led me to more researching and the cousin who pulled out the Atlantic Monthly article
  • which eloquently outlined that there is already an easy solution to looking at reparations in bill HR40
  • which lines up with CTTT’s missions and values.

Gotta love serendipity.

Thanks to everyone in the reparations groups and to all who came to Coming to the Table’s National Gathering for the inspiration of your individual stories. You motivated Coming to the Table to start a petition to urge Congress to pass HR40. Please sign it here.  A study of reparations is long overdue.

What has ancestral serendipity inspired you to do?

Motivational Monday: Marching on Washington

The only bad thing about my recent trip to Brazil was the timing.  While my family and I were there, Americans were marking the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  I wasn’t at the first March in 1963 because I wasn’t born yet.  So, I hoped to be at this one with friends from my Unitarian Universalist congregation in Montclair and from Coming to the Table, an organization that brings together the descendants of slaves and slave owners in order to heal the historic harms of slavery. These are two groups near and dear to my heart that inspire me.

Coming to the Table was inspired by the vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his historic March on Washington speech 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.” On August 28th, the same day the march happened in 1963 and 50 years later, an essay that I wrote came out in MOREmagazine. My essay is about the relationship with my “linked descendants,”  the people whose ancestors once owned my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton. So, I guess in a way, even though my body was in Brazil, a part of me did make it to the march. And somehow, while I did not orchestrate it, my UU friends met my Coming to the Table friends and marched together.  That’s some serious synchronicity.

My friends, Phoebe Kilby, from Coming to the Table, and Emilia Colon from the Undoing Racism Committee at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair.  They were together at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that took place last week.

My friends, Phoebe Kilby, from Coming to the Table, and Emilia Colon from the Undoing Racism Committee at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair. They were together at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that took place last week.





Me and my essay in the September issue of MORE magazine on news stands now! (Photo courtesy of Greer Burroughs)

Me and my essay in the September issue of MORE magazine on news stands now! (Photo courtesy of Greer Burroughs)



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: 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?

Wordy Wednesday: Jefferson Davis’s letter to my Ancestor

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."

Follow Friday: Sleep-in to Save History

Tonight, I’m joining Joe McGill and several others in a sleep-in to preserve history at the Greenwich Historical Society in Greenwich, CT.

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.

Travel Tuesday: Reclaiming History in Richmond, One Cousin at a Time

Me at Libby Hill Park in Richmond, VA. where the view is said to so closely resemble that of Richmond on the Thames in England that it gave the city its name. Along with a great view, the park boasts an enormous Confederate monument. Photo courtesy of Jane Feldman.

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.

My CTTT cousins and me at the Confederate Monument in Richmond, VA.

Words of Wisdom Wednesday: MLK’s Vision Manifested

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?

Blogiversary Gift: Sankofa

Slave cabin at Sweet Briar College, Amherst, VA where I visited last fall.

Yesterday marked two years of blogging about my search for my ancestors and their stories.

When I started, I just hoped that this blog would connect me to more family on this same research path and bring some levity to what I feared would be a daunting journey.  Indeed that has happened. Not including my cousin, Monique who encouraged me to start this blog, “Finding Josephine” has connected me with four other distant cousins as well as my “good as cousins” – descendants of the people who enslaved my ancestors. Some of these virtual relationships have remained in the cyber world. Others have resulted in face to face connections and ongoing communications.  From things like letters written by my ancestors to portraits of them, this journey has uncovered an amazing amount of information about my family’s past, our country’s and even about myself.

Discovering that my enslaved ancestor, Tempy Burton went from being property to owning it, inspired me to start looking for our dream house.  My husband and I always had an idea in our minds of the kind of house we wanted but could never figure out how to make it happen. Tempy, with no formal education, figured out how to buy an acre of land and even passed some of it down to my great, great-grandmother, Josephine.  If she could make that dream happen, then why couldn’t I make this one happen?  We just moved into our dream house last week.

Stumbling across my third great-grandfather’s obituary that said he’d studied at Washington College on the Eastern Shore of Maryland made me seek out more information about the school and my ancestor’s time there. That ancestor, William R. Stuart, was a Maryland State Senator and as Senate President, I’m sure he had to give plenty of speeches.  I hope to channel his speaking gene when I speak at Washington College about my ancestry journey  in November. (Let’s hope he wasn’t boring or long winded).

Going back has propelled me forward.  That’s the spirit of the West African word and symbol Sankofa - taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present for  positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.

Speaking of Sankofa, on Saturday, I got a chance to speak with Joseph McGill, Jr. of the National Trust for Historic Preservation about his project to sleep at slave dwellings around the country in order to bring attention to their existence and preserve them. If that isn’t the spirit of Sankofa, then I don’t know what is. The conference call was arranged by “Coming to the Table,” an organization that brings descendants of the enslaved and enslavers together in the spirit of healing.    Speaking to him reminded me that I’d visited a slave cabin last fall, pictured above. The cabin sits on Sweet Briar College in Amherst, VA, the former site of a plantation.

Being inside the one-room dwelling, crammed with original farm equipment and even “slave bracelets” ( not to be confused with any kind of fashion statement) was simply overwhelming.  Their cabin was a stone’s throw from the enormous main house and the image of the two together seemed a perfect visual summation of our country’s history of slavery and the enduring legacy.  I was so relieved that the university was preserving the slave cabin and allowing the public to see it just like the main house.  Maybe McGill will add the cabin to his project. Maybe other Americans will visit it too as part of their “Sankofa” journey.

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