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.

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!

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