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?
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.