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: The Legacy of Gilbert Academy, New Orleans

Marker at the site of Gilbert Academy in New Orleans, LA where my dad attended high school. (Photo courtesy of Flikr)

Last week I read Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ 2009 narrative of a Muslim family living in New  Orleans and what happened to them during and after Hurricane Katrina. In its pages, I recognized many of the places described from my own family trips to  New Orleans and more recent research jaunts into our history.  But when I got to the penultimate page, one name in particular jumped out at me: McDonogh #28, a junior high school on Esplanade.  Hadn’t my dad said he’d gone to school at McDonogh?  I finished the book then searched my computer until I found an interview with my dad a few year’s back. I’d been meaning to have another look at that interview anyway and cull it for any possible leads left unfollowed into our family’s history. Sure enough, Dad had gone to McDonogh, but it was #35,  a high school on “the infamous Rampart, a street of hookers, tailors, and pool rooms – no place to have a high school,” Dad had said.

That’s why I’d remembered it.  Dad wasn’t happy to be there.  (McDonogh #35 has since moved and become a bronze medal ranked school by US News and World Report). McDonogh was the second high school Dad attended, and he’d left his heart at his first, Gilbert Academy.

“I was lucky enough to go to Gilbert Academy in 9th grade,” Dad explained in the interview.  It was a private school for African Americans under the auspices of the Methodist Church. The academy’s history was captured by Keith Medley in a November, 1985 New Orleans Tribune article and in the book, Gilbert Academy and Agricultural College available on Google. Accordingly, Gilbert Academy began as an orphanage for the children of black soldiers who had gone to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War and never returned. Then, it transitioned to an agricultural and industrial college for recently emancipated slaves in the 1870s and was located on a former plantation near Franklin, Louisiana.   That is the same place where my second great grandmother, Tempy last saw her mom, Eliza Burton and her siblings when they were all still enslaved.  It’s also where Tempy’s son, Alfred met and married his wife perhaps while on an expedition to find his mother’s lost family.   What a small world.

Gilbert Academy would eventually move to St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans and become an elite high school for African Americans, funded by the Methodist Church.  My grandparents didn’t have much money or education to speak of, but they had religion. A devout Methodist, my grandmother  undoubtedly heard about the school at church.  Dad didn’t know how my grandmother got the money to send him to Gilbert. Most likely, my father received a scholarship.

While there, dad learned how to play the violin, something I never knew about him. Gilbert had an excellent music department and its chorus performed at the Chicago World’s Fair in the mid 30s. At Gilbert, he was also introduced to fraternities. Dad’s teacher, Mr. Kennedy was an Omega Psi Phi and got Dad involved with a high school fraternity they sponsored. Dad recalled his time with the high school fraternity fondly, especially a trip he took with them to Clark University in Atlanta.

But in 1949, only a year after enrolling, Gilbert Academy shut down. The Methodist church decided to sell the property the school was on to the Catholic archdiocese.   Dad didn’t get to graduate from Gilbert Academy, but his time  there forever linked him to fellow students like UN Ambassador Andrew Young, writers Margaret Walker Alexander and Tom Dent, and jazz pianist, Ellis Marsalis, dad of Wynton and Branford. How difficult it must have been to leave this sanctuary. While Dad may have had to leave Gilbert Academy,  Gilbert Academy never left Dad.

When he went to college on the GI bill in his mid 30s, the father of five kids by then, Dad joined a fraternity, the Alpha Phi Alphas.  I always wondered about that, why a grown man would need this brotherhood when he had a whole big family at home. Now I think I get it.  Gilbert Academy was a gem in an otherwise rocky time for my dad coming of age in segregated New Orleans, and the fraternity, a black brotherhood, was the legacy it bequeathed to him.

What impressions did your school leave on you?

Follow Friday: Calm after the Storm

My cousin, Shawnique Ford Richter and me a week before Hurricane Sandy with glasses that belonged to our great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton and our great grandmother, Josephine Ford.

I’m happy this Friday not to be following any storms like Hurricane Sandy or the subsequent Nor’easter that dropped about a half a foot of snow on our town, up to two feet in other areas.

I’d always wondered how my New Orleans relatives could put up with all of the Hurricanes sweeping in from the Gulf like clockwork every summer.  ”Why don’t they move somewhere above sea level,” I always wondered.  But look what good being above sea level did for us here in New Jersey.  I lost power for five days which is lucky compared to my compatriots.  Rockaway Beach in New York looks like a war zone and parts of the Jersey shore have been swallowed by the Atlantic.

Things are just starting to get back to normal here as my daughters have returned to school after missing a week and a half due to the storm and train service in our town resumed today after being suspended the past few weeks.

The only thing working for us during the power outtage was my cell phone (when I could get it charged).  I got lots of emails and text messages from friends and family checking up on me including genealogy buddies, my New Orleans cousin, Shawnique, and my linked descendants,  people who I am connected with through slavery.

Just before the storm hit, I traveled to see the latter two in Louisiana and Mississippi. Shawnique and I reminisced about her dad who just passed away in October and we marveled at our family history that he had passed on to us.  I got to have lunch with the sister of one of my genealogy buddies who worked just miles from my grandfather’s resting place where I also went to pay my respects.  After my aunt gave me a special prayer and blessing for a safe journey, I left New Orleans and continued to Canton, Mississippi for a family gathering with my linked descendants. (But not before I bought some beignets from Cafe du Monde). In the perfect bookend to that trip, I came home the following day and spoke at my town’s historical society about what I’d learned about researching African American genealogy by tracing my own roots these past few years.

Then the storm hit.

During those five days without power, oddly, I felt at peace.  Spending so much uninterrupted time with my family, when we weren’t all getting on each other’s nerves, I noticed how they all are thriving.  My daughters have inherited my husband’s sense of humor and compassion, all of them packing up stuff to give storm victims even while we were still powerless. In our community, people dug each other out of broken tree branches and offered each other a spot around their living room fire if that’s the only thing they had to share.  Through the sometimes stormy trek through  my ancestors’ history these past few years, I gained a fantastic relationship with my cousin Monique, and a budding one with my linked descendants. Maybe the calm feeling was just because power was the only thing we lost – no property damage like last year when Irene came.  That hurricane wrecked my grandma’s car which was in our driveway and a lot of our personal belongings that were in a storage facility at the time that got flooded. But I prefer to think this calm after the storm is a Sankofa thing.  Looking back at my past has put me at peace about my present and where I’m going.

My family and me at the Montclair Historical Society after my talk on African American genealogy. Photo courtesy of Tony Turner.

Memorial Monday: Saying Goodbye to our Family Griot

My uncle, Henry Ford, our family griot. (1945-2012)

On October 1st, just days before his birthday, my uncle Henry Ford passed away.  He was 66.

My uncle struggled for some time with diabetes, but his passing still came as a shock to me.  I’d just spoken to him two weeks ago and he sounded well.

Henry was a very good uncle.  He took me to the New Orleans zoo, one of his favorite places, and always made sure I had a po’ boy or some gumbo whenever I was in town.  He also indulged all of my questions about our family and drove with me on genealogy jaunts to Mississippi.  Along with his stories about our ancestors,   what I most treasure about my uncle is that he and my father visited each other even though they lived thousands of miles apart, so I got to have a good relationship with my cousins.  While on the phone with my cousin, Shawnique the other  night to express my condolences, we were able to laugh about the summer we spent in her room listening to Prince and thinking we were so grown up because our parents let us walk alone to the mall not far from her house.  During a different summer when she visited us, she joined me on my camp’s field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo.

Henry tried to help me fill in t he blanks of our past about the Colonel, Tempe and Josephine.  Now, he’s back with them all, keyed in to all of the answers, and I hope at peace.

Black Scholar Of The Civil War Asks: Who’s With Me? – WNYC

Black Scholar Of The Civil War Asks: Who’s With Me? – WNYC.

I’m with Atlantic Monthly writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who describes himself as a Civil War obsessive. You can hear for yourself what he has to say about the importance of Civil War history to all of us. Since I discovered that my great, great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy while leaving at home an invalid wife, and an infant child with his slave (my great, great-grandmother Tempy), I’ve tried to learn more about this war and era, particularly what it was like for slaves at the time.

Right now, I’m reading three books that are shedding more light on that era: Adam Goodheart’s, “1861,” Charles Dufour’s “The Night the War Was Lost,” and James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.’s “An Absolute Massacre.”

What I’ve learned so far outside of the everyday Civil War wisdom is that as a slave in New Orleans, my great, great-grandmother Tempy would have had a very different experience than rural slaves or even those in other cities.  According to Hollandsworth’s book, “New Orleans contained the largest, wealthiest and best educated community of free blacks in the country.” What must it have been like to be enslaved while people who looked like her were free?  I’m also learning about the battle for the port of New Orleans that my great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart fought in which Charles Dufour assigns as the defining moment for the confederacy.  He says it’s the battle that lost them the war.

In my great, great-grandfather’s obituary, it mentions that he was elected as a member to the Constitutional Convention of New Orleans. I hope to learn more about this convention and discover which one he was elected to since there were several.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, what have you been learning about your ancestors and their place in this history?

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!

Follow Friday: My Ancestors’ Civil War History

W.R. Stuart's Company Muster Roll for the Confederate Guards from footnote.com

As our country continues to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I’ve been trying to learn more about this national conflict.  So, I’ve been reading the New York Times’ Disunion blog as well as Adam Goodheart’s book, 1861 The Civil War Awakening.” The book’s description of  every day people as well as military heroes  made me realize I haven’t delved very far into my ancestors’ part in the Civil War.  My great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton lived through this tumultuous time as a slave in New Orleans while my my great-grandfather, Col. W. R. Stuart fought as a  Confederate to defend the Crescent City against Union forces.  I found a copy of the Colonel’s muster roll at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. over a year ago, but I’ve never been moved to learn more about his service than the little printed on the one-page document.  While he was fighting to uphold the Confederacy, Tempy was tending to her and the Colonel’s youngest child, Alfred who would have been around two years-old when his dad decided to fight with the Confederates. As much as I abhor the Colonel’s position as a slaveholder and his decision to fight to uphold their cause, reading Goodheart’s book made me curious about the battle that my great, great-grandfather fought in.

So, I pulled out the copy of his muster roll and gave it a closer look.   He signed up a year into the conflict and his service was short, from March 8 to April 30, 1862.  What made him decide to get involved in the conflict then? Why such a quick tour of duty? The note at the bottom of the muster roll says that Stuart was immediately transferred to Major General Mansfield Lovell “for local defense of the city of New Orleans and its approaches on March 8, 1862.”  With a little more digging at knowla.org, the online Encyclopedia of Louisiana, I soon realized that my great, great-grandfather had fought unsuccessfully to defend New Orleans against Union forces in a major battle that some historians believe lost the war for the Confederates. On May 1st, 1862, Maj. General Benjamin Butler arrived in New Orleans to begin the federal occupation of the town that would last through the reconstruction period.

I’m looking forward to learning more about what this time was like for my ancestors from resources like James McPherson’s  book The Negro’s Civil War and Charles Dufour’s The Night the War Was Lost.  There is quite a bit of material about this battle at the Louisiana State University’s library as well, but that will require a trip to their archives.  Meanwhile, I’m taking notes from  a3genealogy.com‘s Kathleen Brandt who has written a piece for AARP’s online site  on researching your Civil War ancestors.

Where else should I look to learn more about this battle and the long federal occupation of New Orleans that followed which would have affected both the Colonel and Tempy? Where are you looking to learn more about how this time affected your ancestors?

Friend of Friends Friday: 20 Slaves of William R. Stuart

Manifest of the Pioneer, a ship that transported 20 slaves from Baltimore, MD to New Orleans, LA. The passengers were enslaved by my third great-grandfather, Col. W. R. Stuart.

Yesterday, while she was looking for something else, my cousin Monique found the above manifest on Ancestry.com.  It names 20 slaves aboard the Barque Pioneer transported from Baltimore to New Orleans and owned by our ancestor, Col. W.R. Stuart.  It was a surprise to find this document because we’d searched for slave manifests before and never found anything connecting with our family’s history.  (Just goes to show the importance of going back and retracing your steps.  New documents are being added to places like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org all of the time.)

But it was no surprise that the Colonel owned many slaves. In 1853, he placed an ad in a newspaper in order to sell them because he was dissolving his partnership in a Baton Rouge-based cotton plantation. (I suspect the passengers on this ship went to work on the Colonel’s plantation). That article was hard to swallow, but this manifest is heart wrenching.   The last passenger, a boy, 4’4″  tall, was only 11 years old, the same age as my oldest daughter.  No other passenger with the same last name is listed, so little Tom Iona was probably sold away from his family.  But the painful reality of this document is assuaged by its value to researchers. It gives both first and last names of the passengers as well as their  ages.  That’s a lot more information than normally provided about slaves.  Hopefully this information will help a fellow researcher connect with their ancestor.

Here are the names and ages of the slaves aboard the Pioneer on July 20, 1848:

Joseph Cedars, 23

Charles Smith, 21

Richmond Lewis, 29

Lewis Fisher, 20

Edward Henderson, 20

Carter Lewis, 27

Elija Parker, 30

Dennis Snowden, 20

Wyatt Tabor, 26

Samuel Walker, 28

Ezekiel Mathews, 35

Gabriel Bayler, 37

Frank Taylor, 28

Ephraim Jackson, 28

Nelson Holoway, 30

Alford Bensen, 20

Ruffin Baker, 28

John Gordy, 22

Robert Mitchell, 28

Tom Iona, 11

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.

Wordless Wednesday: Happy Mardi Gras!

In honor of our New Orleans roots, my cousin, Monique made this Mardi Gras meal to kick off the celebration: Creole Chicken Fricassee, Red Beans & Rice, Creole White Rice, Cornbread, Mixed Veggies and Salad. The recipes are from Rachel Ray Show & Tasteofhome.com.

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