When “12 Years A Slave” won an Oscar for best picture last night, it made history. It is the first film directed by a black person to ever win the best picture Oscar in the Academy Award’s 86 year history.
When I told my 14 year-old this, she didn’t believe me.
“That’s ratchet,” she said, which means messed up. That it took so long is messed up on the one hand, but hopeful on the other. That Solomon Northup’s story would reach such prominence after almost being forgotten is hopeful, even if it took over 150 years. That his story of enslavement has resonated with so many people and is recognized as American history, (not only black American) is also hopeful. That the actress, Lupita Nyong’o spoke so eloquently of the joy she is awarded based on the pain of the people she and the cast portrayed is also hopeful. That she was born on the same day as my 14 year-old who also wants to be an actress is just a bonus.
While no one has (yet ) made a film about my family’s history, there is a book that touches on some of it. “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom” by Herbert Gutman is a detailed portrait of the life of people once enslaved by the Stirling family (and other plantation owners) in Louisiana. My third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton was enslaved by the Stirlings. While I haven’t found evidence of her referenced in its pages, Gutman’s book gives me a glimpse into how those in similar circumstances to Eliza lived before and after slavery. Speaking of books, let me get back to writing mine – I need something to pitch to Hollywood!
Before I go, listen to what Solomon Northup’s third great-grandson had to say about the Academy Award-winning film based on his grandfather’s life and what he would say if he won an Oscar.
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 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.
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?
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.
My cousin, Monique made this pillow for me as a Christmas/Kwanzaa/New Year's gift. It displays our ancestor Tempy Burton's 1891 newspaper ad, looking for her family whom she had been separated from by slavery.
During our New Year get together while the kids were busy playing Wii, Monique and I poured over the book "History of Queen Anne County" by Frederick Emory. It's full of information about our Stuart ancestors during their time in Chestertown, Maryland.
After spending all day amongst friends to begin the new year, my family and I sat down at our dinner table to celebrate the last day of Kwanzaa. This African-American holiday helps restore and root us in our African culture lost in the Middle Passage. It seemed fitting to end this restorative holiday and begin a new year by listing the names of about 100 slaves I came across while researching my family tree. Hopefully by listing these names found in the Lewis Stirling Family Papers, archived at Louisiana State University, some family researcher will be connected with their ancestors. All of the following people were enslaved to Lewis Stirling of West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana and were listed in a mortgage as collateral. These names and any other of enslaved people I come across in Louisiana will be listed on the page, “Enslaved Communities of Louisiana.”
This morning, I woke up feeling really blue and not just because of the weather. I spent several hours in the library yesterday with my cousin, Monique pouring through the Stirling Family Papers. The Stirlings owned my third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton and I hope to find some information about her and other ancestors among the vast collection of the Louisiana based family that owned her. But wading through these reams of documents about the Stirling’s endless acres of land, the hundreds if not thousands of slaves they held in bondage to work their land, and a free person of color who sold other blacks to the Stirlings is really bringing me down. This morning I was feeling like why bother researching this stuff when it’s so depressing.
“Hold those things that tell your history and protect them. During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything? The ability to have somebody to tell your story to is so important. It says: `I was here. I may be sold tomorrow. But you know I was here.’” – Maya Angelou
I can’t do anything about the degradations of the past, but I can help protect that history and honor it by telling my family’s part in it. Thanks Maya Angelou for donating your work so that future generations can learn from it and also for helping me today to keep on keeping on!
Finally, the Stirling Family papers have arrived on five rolls of microfilm at my local library!
The Stirling Family papers are a collection of deeds, wills, diaries of slave life, and letters that belonged to the Lewis Sterling family, owner of several plantations in Louisiana. I learned this summer that the Stirlings owned my third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton, her children, Nancy and Albert Burton, and her sisters Peggie Manrow and Bettie Matthews. They all lived on the Stirling’s Attakapas plantation. Now, all I have to do is carefully comb through the microfilm reels to see if they contain any information about my enslaved ancestors. It took me four hours to get through just one roll, so this could take awhile. For the foreseeable future, scouring and transcribing these papers will be my number one genealogy goal.
In just one sitting on Friday, I found over 100 names of slaves owned by Lewis Stirling in these papers, and I only minimally diminished my eyesight squinting at my library’s out-of-focus microfilm screen in the process. Too bad none of the listed slaves were my relatives. But on the bright side, those slaves could be related to some other family genealogist who’s looking for their people the way I’m looking for Eliza. So, on Friday, I’ll put as many of the names that I can transcribe along with the source information on this site under the tab “Stirling Family Slaves.” I’ll try to update this page as often as possible to coincide with the Geneabloggers Friday theme, Friend of Friends. A Friend of Friends was the password used along the Underground Railroad to signal those assisting runaway slaves on their journey North to freedom. (See Sandra Taliaferro’s inspiring essay and the A Friend of Friends site she helped create with Luckie Daniels.)
The other good news about transcribing these papers is that they’ll give me a chance to visit with my cousin, Monique, since she’s offered to risk her eyesight to help me.
After finding out that a Dr. Stirling owned some of my great, great-grandmother Tempy’s relatives, I punched his name and a few other facts into the search engine and was thrilled when a collection of papers popped up.
According to the inventory of this special collection at the Louisiana State University, the Lewis Stirling family papers have a plethora of information on the family’s slaves including everything from a register of slaves to itemized lists of clothing and shoes handed out to those in bondage.
This weekend, I spent a day at Princeton University’s Firestone library where a copy of the papers is also stored and after many hours, I had barely scratched the surface of the five microfilm reels archiving this family’s antebellum years. Even though I haven’t gotten to the info I’m looking for, the Stirling papers make for fascinating reading. All of the wills I’ve read so far stipulate that slave families are not to be separated (which makes me wonder why my great, great-grandmother got separated from her mother, siblings and aunt). And in a three page contract with an overseer, one Stirling slave owner goes to pains to explain exactly how slaves should be disciplined (never with more than a dozen stripes and never with the butt end of the whip) and that the owner should be called if the overseer thinks they’ve done something to merit harsher treatment.
Can’t wait to see what other insights the Stirling Family Papers hold.
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?