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: 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?

Motivation Monday on Tombstone Tuesday: My Ancestor in a Slave Narrative?

My grandmother, Lillie Mae Ford's tomb at Lake Lawn Cemetery, New Orleans. She's at the top of the end row. I'm standing beneath.

Only my third week of Motivation Monday and already, I’ve fallen down on the job.  I blame my stuffed nose for not posting my goals yesterday as part of this weekly theme I instituted only three weeks ago.  That’s also my excuse for not fulfilling the genealogy goal I set last week to transcribe one of my third great-grandfather’s letters.  The letters are still sitting in their big manilla envelope where I left them the week before.

But last night as my sinuses were finally starting to clear, I couldn’t resist googling and found something unexpected on the MSGenWeb site, the online source of Mississippi genealogical resources and branch of the larger US GenWeb.  In the late 1930s, writers from the federal Works Project Administration (WPA) recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women including ex-slaves and MSGenWeb transcribed as many of the Mississippi slave narratives as they could and have them available at their site.   I didn’t expect to see my enslaved ancestor, Tempy Burton listed since she died in 1925 before the project began, but there were two narrations for Jackson County where she lived. I read them out of curiosity.  In Nat Plummer’s narrative, this ex-slave makes no reference to Tempy, but he does refer  to Tempy’s master, my great, great-grandfather, Col. W. R. Stuart.  It’s just a reference to his house and the last name is misspelled Stewart,  but it was exciting nonetheless, that his house could be mentioned as a point of historical reference in a context broader than just my family’s history.

My goal for next week is to fulfill the one from last week: transcribe another letter from my third great-grandfather’s collection of papers.  Also, I plan to get rid of this cold.

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