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.

Friend of Friend Friday: Slave Burial Ground in Virginia

View from the Slave Burial Ground, Sweet Briar College, Amherst, VA.

While at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I’ve had the chance to visit the slave burial grounds at nearby Sweet Briar College. Over the years that I’ve been coming to the VCCA to write, I became aware of the grounds and was happy to learn that they were being preserved. Sweet Briar College was once a plantation and dozens of enslaved people are buried there.  Thanks to the work of a team of preservationists headed by Dr. Lynn Rainville, these grounds are safe from disappearing and another descendant is closer to finding their ancestor.

Rainville, a research anthropologist and historian at Sweet Briar College, received a grant earlier this year from the National Endowment for  the Humanities to develop the African American Family Database.   The project is a model for researching African-American families from antebellum to post-bellum times and when completed will  help descendants find their enslaved ancestors.

Joy of the Journey

Fall in full bloomLast night I spent several hours researching in the tall stacks of a nearby college where the vibrant tree above stands at the campus entrance, a festive welcome to the all girls school in rural Virginia.  The smell of musty books, thumbed by scores of coeds, faculty and visitors like me over the years, ignited the possibilities I always feel when I’m standing at the beginning of something.  Being surrounded by information inspires me.

Like the shocking colors in that tree, the smell of possibility was just the jolt I needed. Lately, as I near the end of this first draft of my novel and wade deeper into my search for my family’s history I’ve  hit some roadblocks with both and I’ve felt my excitement wane. For the past week of my writing fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I’ve been counting the pages I write, reprimanding myself for not producing more.  My kids are missing me and my husband has rearranged his schedule while I’m gone.  The least I could do is return with a finished manuscript. For the past month of researching my family history, I’ve felt the pressure of similar unreasonable demands to make some important discovery about the people I came from, especially my great grandmother, Josephine.

It’s still a mystery whether or not she was the daughter (like my grandfather told me) or, if as her age suggests, the granddaughter of  Col. W.R. Stuart and Temple Burton. I have yet to find any death certificate to pinpoint where and when she died.  The only frame I have for her life is a 1920 census that puts her at age 45 and my father’s account that she was dead by the time he was born in 1934. These two bits of information are the bookends for the life of a woman who didn’t live to see her sixtieth birthday.  Maybe she didn’t even live to see 50.  Having grown up with both my grandparents and great grandparents, I can’t help but feel like my father and his siblings missed out on something precious.

The precious stuff is not so much in the beginnings and endings of people’s lives or the stories we read about them, real or imagined, but in what happens in between.   When I got an excited text message from my fourth cousin two days ago that said,  “Found Josephine,” it reminded me of how thrilled I was when she first found me and our subsequent visits together pouring over her big  binders full of information on our family. Turned out she had found some other Josephine, but I was more buoyed by her tireless enthusiasm toward our search and the opportunity it allows us to get to know each other better than I was disappointed that the information didn’t pan out.

After a full day of writing yesterday (I did not finish my novel but I at least came closer to knowing how to),  I took a jog along the Sweet Briar campus,  Michael Jackson on my ipod propelling me along when I saw that tree.  I ran by it twice before I doubled (or tripled) back, realizing fall colors are brief and tenuous.  If a strong wind kicked up that evening, those leaves could all be blown to the ground by the next time I rode or jogged by.   So, I stopped running,  just stared at it for a while and let a wave of contentment wash over me. I had the privilege to write uninterrupted by the demands of real life at an artist’s colony,  a husband who encourages me to do so, gladly taking over the fulltime care of our daughters and home while I’m here and in my cousin, Monique, a kindred spirit and research buddy.  With the sun disappearing beyond  the Blue Ridge mountains, I heaved a huge sigh of relief.  In both my novel and my family research, I was beyond the frenetic excitement of the beginning but had not yet reached  the relieved exhilaration of the end.  I was in the middle where the precious stuff, the joy of the journey resides.

Do you find the middle of a project as  challenging as I do?  How do you stay connected to the joy of the journey?

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