For Valentine’s Day: A History of Love

UntitledMy great-grandparents, Josephine Burton and Rev. James Ford most likely met through their affiliation with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  I know from my great-grandmother Josephine’s frequent editorials in “The Southwestern Christian Advocate” newspaper that she regularly attended ME sunday school, church and camp meetings in and around Ocean Springs as early as 1890 when she was sixteen years-old. The same newspaper also has frequent mentions of my great-grandfather, James Ford preaching at the camp meetings, Sunday schools or churches in the area. He was an itinerant minister and appears on the rolls of the Methodist Episcopal Church  Mississippi Conference book as early as 1879.  One of my favorite things published in the “Southwestern Christian Advocate” is my great-grandparents’ May 3, 1894 marriage announcement (pictured to the left).  It’s simple and sweet the way love should be.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

What history of love have you uncovered about your ancestors?


Follow Friday: Family and Forgotten History

The benefits of researching my family history are too numerous to list, but one that bears mentioning is how much uncovering my family’s past has taught me things about history that I never learned in school. It wasn’t until I found a newspaper anecdote  about a party my great-grandmother Josephine threw on January 1st, 1892 did I learn the first of the year was also Emancipation Day, commemorating the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves.  I also learned that there were more slave narratives than those of famous former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs whose remarkable stories I read in college.  In the late 1930s, volunteers from the Federal Writer’s Project  collected slave narratives too, but of former slaves no one had ever heard of. Within those archived accounts is mention of my great great grandfather’s home.

So, I was so excited to learn that a forgotten history that I’ve been reading, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Written by Tom Reiss, Black Count is the real life story behind the fictional Count of Monte Cristo.  The real “count” was actually Alexandre Dumas, a general in the French Army, born to a slave woman from Haiti and a French aristocrat on the run.  His real life swashbuckling inspired the novels written by his son of the same name.

As I read The Black Count, what struck me as deeply as Reiss’s captivating account of this forgotten hero, was how much attitudes about race in France changed for the worse, minimizing the General’s place in history, his African ancestry and even how we view his famous son whose books we still read over a century later.

(Before you heard it referenced in Django Unchained, did you know that the author of the classics, the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo was of African ancestry?)

I’m also reading Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline’s novel based on a little known part of American history. From the mid 1850s to the early 1900s, the so called orphan trains took thousands of orphaned and abandoned children from the east coast to be adopted by families in the midwest. The main character in Kline’s book was one such child and her riveting past is revealed when she meets a teenager  who has spent her life in and out of foster homes.

Before I started reading her book, I had never heard about this part of American history. My husband’s paternal ancestors ended up in the midwest after immigrating to the USA from Finland.  Of course I can’t help but wonder now if the orphan train is a part of any of their history.

What forgotten history have you stumbled on while searching for your family’s past?

Motivational Monday: Tracing African Roots through a Song

Promotional picture for the 1998 documentary, "The Language You Cry In."

On Saturday, I shook off the magic dust of a week at Disney World and got back into my real life by attending the monthly meeting of my local African American Genealogy Society. Our group leader had print outs of the 1940 federal census on hand so we could all get a close up view of the details included in that 72 year-old document. Much more intricate than the ones we fill out now, the 1940 census can reveal a lot about an ancestor. She also brought along a documentary called, “The Language You Cry In.” It’s the remarkable story of how a song passed down by the women of a Gullah family in Georgia is traced back to Sierra Leone. Through a song, this American family found its roots in Africa.

I broke down in tears more than once during the viewing. Not only was it remarkable that 200 years of lost history was reclaimed through a song that a grandma sang while doing chores and playing with her offspring, but it was also inspirational. It gave me hope that I too might find where in Africa my ancestors come from.

I know I could find out by just taking a DNA test already and be done with it. And I have. But I haven’t looked at the results yet. I’m still hoping to dig up my history by what my ancestors left behind, like my grandpa’s story that got me started on this journey, my great-grandmother Josephine’s newspaper articles that make me think that writing is in my genes, and great, great-grandma Tempe’s ads looking to reunite with her family after slavery ended – another inherited trait – the need to find my people. I still have hope that some piece of paper or some story will emerge that connects me to the African country we came from.

So, I will refrain from the magic of DNA for at least another week while I follow up with a few other leads on my African ancestry. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for leads to your African ancestry, make sure you check out Sharon Morgan’s website, Our Black Ancestry which has tons of links to resources. And if your people are from Virginia, check out the Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer project which my friend LaKesha Kimbrough brought to my attention.

Happy digging!

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.

Sentimental Sunday: Father’s Day Quilt

My husband, Dennis Kurtti holding up his Father's Day Quilt.

This was one of the best Father’s Days that I’ve ever celebrated with my husband.  Probably because I planned a gift far ahead of time that had a lot of personal meaning instead of hoping that a Hallmark card and something from our local stores could capture what his relationship with my daughters and I mean to me. This year, with the help of my cousin, Monique, I made him the Father’s Day Quilt pictured above from garments that span the course of our life together.

The Honest Diner sweatshirt was from one of our favorite Long Island diners that we frequented the summer we started dating. The “Just Married” shirt was a gift from some Swiss friends, hence the cows.  Most of the other panels come from maternity clothes many of which Dennis picked out. I’m the first to admit that my husband has better taste than I do and five months into my first pregnancy when I was feeling like a beached whale, he suggested a change in my wardrobe might help and took me shopping at Liz Lange, a New York City maternity boutique.  He was right.  Walking around in leather maternity pants made my disappearing waste line a little easier to take. Dennis showed his flare when he proposed as well, turning what I thought was a business trip into an engagement vacation. That boat on the left is where he asked me to marry him. As Mo showed me how to sew its panel to the others while our kids played in her basement, I was struck by how appropriate it was that my married life got started on a boat. My engagement to Dennis seemed to forecast big adventures to come.  We’ve had plenty as a couple but our engagement also incited a personal journey into my family’s history.

Dennis is Irish-American and Catholic. Years before, when my grandfather first told me about his interracial grandparents, Tempy Burton and Col. W. R. Stuart, he said that the Colonel was Irish and that the colonel’s wife was a devout Catholic.  It seemed like my family had come full circle. So soon after I got engaged, I went to New Orleans to visit my grandmother, Lillie Mae, and learn more about the Colonel, Tempy and their daughter Josephine.  15 years later, I know that the Colonel was Scottish not Irish and that his wife, Elizabeth was devout but as a Methodist not a Catholic.   I also know a lot more about all of my ancestors as well as myself.  I’m glad to be on this present adventure with Dennis and our girls as well as the parallel journey into my family’s past.  I hope that you’re enjoying your life’s adventure too, wherever it takes you.

Happy Father’s Day!

P.S. Check out my cousin, Monique’s blog, Tempy’s Treasure which highlights her talent for turning people’s memories into heirlooms.

Fearless Females: My great-grandmother, Josephine

In honor of Women’s History Month, Lisa Alzo at the Accidental Genealogist blog has been providing prompts all month to honor our female ancestors.  Today’s prompt is to write a mini profile on one of our fearless female family members. So, on the last day of Women’s History month, I’m honoring my great-grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford.

According to census reports and marriage and death certificates, Josephine Burton was born in 1875 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi to a former slave, Tempy Burton and her master, Col. W.R. Stuart. She was the youngest of Tempy’s seven children, probably all fathered by the Colonel, and was 14 years younger than her oldest sibling, Alfred Burton Stuart. Like Josephine, I’m the youngest in my family and I am also 14 years younger than my oldest sibling.

At the age of 16, Josephine started writing to the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist Episcopal newspaper based in New Orleans.  Over the years, her writing went from short letters about her attendance at camp revivals to Uncle Cephas, probably the newspaper’s editor, to long impassioned editorials about prayer and every day life as a Christian.  With her passion for Methodism, it’s no surprise that she married a Methodist reverend, James Ford when she was 19.  They made their home in Ocean Springs along with the rest of her family and had six children, including my grandfather, Martin Luther Ford. Most of her time probably went into caring for her home and children single-handed, since, from newspaper accounts, James was often preaching throughout the Delta and attending church conferences out of town.

She also had an interesting way of disciplining according to my cousin, Shawnique who heard a few stories about her from our grandpa, Martin. Grandpa loved baseball and when he misbehaved, Josephine would make him wear a girl’s dress in an attempt to keep him inside away from his beloved baseball.  The shame of being dressed like a girl was no deterrent to Grandpa.  He just went outside in his dress and hit the ball and ran the bases all the same.

But Josephine did not live to meet any of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren.  She died in 1922 of tuberculosis when she was about 47 years-old. But her passion for writing and religion survived in her newspaper articles. Here’s a transcription of one of her first letters to the Southwestern Christian Advocate, February 5, 1891:

Dear Uncle Cephas: I must write and tell you that the dear old Southwestern is a welcome visitor every week to my house.  I love it more and more every time it comes.  Our Presiding Elder, Rev. B.L. Crump, was with us recently and preached a soul-stirring sermon.  Our pastor is Rev. J.K. Comfort.  He has gone to conference.

Your niece,

Josephine Burton, Ocean Sprins, Miss.

A few years later on November 30, 1893 in an editorial entitled “Hindrances to Prayer” she wrote:

The church is being sorely afflicted by the materiality of the times; earth is shutting out heaven; time is eclipsing eternity; a bold and specious humanitarianism is destroying worship; the essential idea of God is being depraved;

Strong words, from a strong woman.

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.

Negro? Please.

My grandfather, Martin Luther Ford, referred to as "mulatto" in some census documents.

In the 2010 Census, people will be able to classify themselves as Negro.  The U.S. Census Bureau has added “Negro” to its forms again because some people prefer to be called by the term an official said.

I’d love to meet the people who refer to themselves as Negro.  Seriously.  I’m always interested in people’s personal philosophies when it comes to identity.  Why someone would want to call themselves something that conjures up the Jim Crow south is particularly intriguing.

My grandmother referred to herself and other black people as colored well into the 1980s, but she’s 93. That’s what blacks were called in the early 1900s in Oklahoma where she grew up.  Her father, my great grandfather, Bud Anderson had a penchant for calling everybody the n word, but only if he liked you. He also liked to carry around a shotgun, so I’m sure people just swallowed his generous use of the n word whether they found it offensive or not.  My great grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford and my grandfather, Martin Ford were classified as mulattoes in a 1910 census.  I wonder if that’s how my great grandmother saw herself, as a mulatto.  I know that’s not how my grandfather saw himself.  When I asked him if he was white, he made it clear he considered himself a black man.  But I’m grateful that the census made this distinction however distasteful the word mulatto may be.  “Mulatto” helped me find them in census reports and their ancestors in archives.

I like to call myself black even though some might consider African American the politically correct term. I’ve tried to use African American for myself, but it never feels right.  The term didn’t come into popularity until I was in my late teens and I was used to and liked the term black by then.  Besides, Africa is a big continent encompassing a plethora of cultures.  Would an American whose parents were born in Egypt call herself African American, or one with parents born in India consider himself Asian American?  I’d like to know.   How do you identify yourself?

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