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.

Motivational Monday: Marching on Washington

The only bad thing about my recent trip to Brazil was the timing.  While my family and I were there, Americans were marking the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  I wasn’t at the first March in 1963 because I wasn’t born yet.  So, I hoped to be at this one with friends from my Unitarian Universalist congregation in Montclair and from Coming to the Table, an organization that brings together the descendants of slaves and slave owners in order to heal the historic harms of slavery. These are two groups near and dear to my heart that inspire me.

Coming to the Table was inspired by the vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his historic March on Washington speech that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” On August 28th, the same day the march happened in 1963 and 50 years later, an essay that I wrote came out in MOREmagazine. My essay is about the relationship with my “linked descendants,”  the people whose ancestors once owned my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton. So, I guess in a way, even though my body was in Brazil, a part of me did make it to the march. And somehow, while I did not orchestrate it, my UU friends met my Coming to the Table friends and marched together.  That’s some serious synchronicity.

My friends, Phoebe Kilby, from Coming to the Table, and Emilia Colon from the Undoing Racism Committee at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair.  They were together at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that took place last week.

My friends, Phoebe Kilby, from Coming to the Table, and Emilia Colon from the Undoing Racism Committee at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair. They were together at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that took place last week.





Me and my essay in the September issue of MORE magazine on news stands now! (Photo courtesy of Greer Burroughs)

Me and my essay in the September issue of MORE magazine on news stands now! (Photo courtesy of Greer Burroughs)



Surname Saturday: digging up the root of our Burton name

Allen Burton's estate listing his slaves, including a woman named Tempy (with name spelled Tempey).

1839 listing of the slaves in Allen Burton’s estate includes a woman named Tempy, like my great, great-grandmother.

Happy Summer!  Mine has been speeding by at a breakneck pace which is why it’s taken me until the dog days to post.   But I’m not complaining.  Amid driving kids to summer camp, packing and unpacking for family trips and trying to stay submerged in water to fight the heatwave in our state, the genealogy gods still managed to throw me a bone.

Right before we took our annual family vacation to Hilton Head in late June, I tried to follow up on some things in my research I’d been neglecting.  Namely, the Thomas Burton papers.

Thomas W. Burton and his wife Nancy lived in Yanceyville,  North Carolina, from about 1850 to 1908.  His collection of papers, archived at North Carolina State University at Chapel Hill, include correspondence between Burton and family members in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama as well as missives on everything from their health to the price of slaves. Since the people first documented as owning my great, great-grandmother were also from North Carolina, and she ended up in Mississippi with a possible tie to Alabama, I figured I should check out these papers, long shot or not.  I hoped they would help me discover  how my great, great grandmother Tempy Burton got her last name.

But instead, they bored me to tears.  Except for a few interesting exchanges from a relative to Mr. Burton, pestering him for never writing, some mentions of a slave, and how the Civil War was dragging ong, the collection was mostly receipts and ledgers. Worried that I might miss a clue pertaining to my family buried in the receipts,  I tried to drum up the courage to wade through the ledgers once more stored on my laptop.  As often happens, my ennui lured me to Google.  I typed “Burton, slave owners” and “Burton slaves” into the search engine, (so similar to the search words I used to find the picture of my family in the header above).  The search returned a bunch of links like the slave narratives of Annie Burton and a doctor, William Burton (whose mom’s name was Eliza like my third great grandmother).  There was also  a link for the Digital Library of American Slavery. Compiled by the Race and Slavery Petitions Project and libraries at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, this digital collection encompasses 15,000 petitions  to Southern courts pertaining to enslaved people, their owners and free people of color in the slave owning states.  In one such petition a woman, “Tempey” is listed as Allen Burton’s slave.  (I’ve seen my great, great-grandmother’s name spelled with and without the “e”).  Among Burton’s other slaves listed were Polly, Nancy and Albert – the names of Tempy’s siblings. (Tempy had another sister, Liberia but she was freed as a child.)  Of the 50 or so other petitions I looked through on the database, this was the only one with a slave named Tempy.  The petition was made in 1839 to  Allen Burton’s estate in Alabama, two points of fact that intrigue me.  In the 1910 census Tempy lists Alabama as her father’s birth place. The filing year of the petition, 1839, was seven years before Hill Jones’ 1846 will where Tempy first shows up in a public document. I still have more work to do, but what if I’ve found the original owner of Tempy?


Follow Friday: Stirling Family Register of Slaves

I wonder if Princeton University will give me some kind of honorary degree for all of the hours I’ve been logging in their microfilm library.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been down there three times.  (No easy feat with two kids, boxes that still need unpacking from our move and the two hour long round trip drive).

But I had to do it.

Amongst the vast records archived at Princeton’s Firestone library is a microfilm copy of the The Stirling Family papers.  The Stirlings had at least three plantations in Attakapas, Louisiana which encompasses St. Martin and St. Mary parishes. They owned at least 100 slaves including my third great grandmother, Eliza Burton and some of her children.  I keep returning there in hopes of finding any mention of Eliza or her family.

On my last visit, looking through the last of the five microfilm devoted to their papers, I came to the best part of the documents – the Register of Slaves.  When I say best, I mean the part that holds the most promise.  Emotionally, this discovery is close to the the worst part of the papers.  The register shows that some of the slaves died as infants.  Almost none are listed with last names. But sometimes, both the mother and father of the child are listed. Reading the register is like walking through an emotional minefield.  One must proceed slowly and with caution.

But read I must. The Stirling’s meticulous record keeping of the births of their slaves could help me recover my ancestors.   While an Eliza is mentioned, as well as a Tempe, Eliza’s daughter, I don’t think they are my Eliza and Tempe.  The ages of these slaves would make them too young to be my people. But perhaps they’re your Eliza and Tempe. Once I figure out how to upload this 22 page file, you can check the register of slaves by clicking on the tab, “Enslaved People of Louisiana.” In the meanwhile, just shoot me an email if you want to look for your ancestors in the register and I’ll email you a copy.

I still have about a half a microfilm left to go so, after I catch my breath again from my own life and that of my ancestors, I’ll go back down to Princeton in hopes of reclaiming my people and maybe yours as well.

Treasure Chest Thursday: The man who met my enslaved ancestor

Peter Rene Monrose 1917-2011. He met my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton, when he was a little boy.

If ever I had a top 10 list of genealogy moments, speaking to Peter Monrose would be right up there along with finding the picture of my ancestors pictured in the header of this blog and the newspaper ad my great, great grandmother Tempy Burton wrote looking for her family whom she’d been separated from through slavery. When he was a little boy, Peter Monrose met Tempy Burton.    He said he didn’t remember much about Tempy except that she was very old  (probably nearing 100) and that he’d heard that her son had been lynched in the bayou near where she lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. In our brief telephone exchange, I felt like I’d reached out and touched my great, great-grandmother via his memories. From his distant recollection almost a century later, I was able to find a newspaper article that seems to corroborate the rumor of the lynching. While all knowledge about my ancestors is welcome, that discovery was bittersweet just like my connection to Peter Monrose.   His distant cousin Elizabeth McCauley Stuart owned  my great-great grandmother Tempy. We’re linked through slavery.

One of the things that has happened to me on this journey of researching my ancestors is that my idea of family has expanded. On the phone, he called my great, great-grandmother Aunt Tempy. Now, in grateful acknowledgement of the treasure of his shared stories, I can’t help but call him Uncle Peter.

He passed away in December. May he rest in peace.

Peter Rene Monrose 1917-2011

The photos are courtesy of Peter’s daughter, Renée Monrose.

Happy Kwanzaa!

In honor of Kwanzaa, here’s a re-post on the celebration I wrote two years ago:

This is the second year in a row that our family is celebrating Kwanzaa. My daughters love taking turns lighting the beautifully carved kinara and drinking from its matching unity cup at the beginning of each of the seven nights of the ceremony. My husband loves helping them with the kinara and I love setting out all the Kwanzaa symbols on the mkekes that my daughters made out of construction paper last year.

We’re building our own traditions as we go along into this 40 year old celebration of African American heritage, one of which is to go around the table and say what the principle of the evening means to us. (Kwanzaa is based on seven principles: umoja - unity, kujichagulia – self-determination, ujima - collective work and responsibility, ujamaa - cooperative economics, nia – purpose, kuumba – creativity, and imani – faith).

Since we’re still new at Kwanzaa, I wanted to make sure the girls remembered the real purpose of the celebration which is not, as I’m sure they hoped, another way of getting more gifts. So on the first night this year, I asked them if they knew why we celebrated.

“Family unity,” the youngest exclaimed.

“To honor our African ancestors,” the oldest one added.

Both right. For me it’s to reclaim what we lost in the middle passage when our ancestors were brought here as slaves: our African language, our African traditions and our African names.

My youngest daughter wanted to know if Tempy was really my great great grandmother’s name since our ancestor’s African names were lost. It’s a good question. While I know from census reports that Tempy was born in Louisiana and not Africa, there’s no way for me to know who gave Tempy her name, if it was her parents who could have been more closely connected to their African roots or if it was her white master. Her last name, Burton was most likely her first master’s surname, something I’m still investigating. I’ve seen some documents where she is referred to as Tempy Burton Stuart, the final name belonging to her final masters, Elizabeth and Col. W.R. Stuart. But it’s the Burton name that has endured and wherever it came from, it’s weaved its way through our family tree. Burton was my great grandmother Josephine’s surname, my great uncle’s first name, and my father’s middle name.

My family continues this tradition of honoring our ancestors on both sides of our tree by carrying on their names. My youngest daughter and I have the same middle name, shared with my maternal grandmother, Louise Walton. My oldest daughter’s middle name honors my maternal great grandmother, Marie Anderson as well as my mother in law, Claire Marie Kurtti. Incidentally, my great grandmother Marie’s real name was Lucy, but she didn’t like it so she changed it. That’s self-determination for you, or kujichagulia – Kwanzaa’s second principle.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked in Shakespeare’s play with the profundity reserved for teenagers hopelessly in love. For her and Romeo, their last names sealed their tragic fates. For Malcolm X, his last name Little, was the sore reminder of the man who held his ancestors in bondage, so he dropped it and went with X instead. For Temple Burton, her last name let her Civil War era world know who she belonged to. For me, my last names Burton, Stuart, Ford and now Kurtti are a road map over the terrain my family has traveled through slavery into emancipation, along the craggy paths of reconstruction and now in the uncharted waters of the present where, with all of this history blowing at my back, I can move forward with a quick and certain step and decide for myself who I will be.

For more information about Kwanzaa, check out the official website at

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.

Sentimental Sunday: Father’s Day Quilt

My husband, Dennis Kurtti holding up his Father's Day Quilt.

This was one of the best Father’s Days that I’ve ever celebrated with my husband.  Probably because I planned a gift far ahead of time that had a lot of personal meaning instead of hoping that a Hallmark card and something from our local stores could capture what his relationship with my daughters and I mean to me. This year, with the help of my cousin, Monique, I made him the Father’s Day Quilt pictured above from garments that span the course of our life together.

The Honest Diner sweatshirt was from one of our favorite Long Island diners that we frequented the summer we started dating. The “Just Married” shirt was a gift from some Swiss friends, hence the cows.  Most of the other panels come from maternity clothes many of which Dennis picked out. I’m the first to admit that my husband has better taste than I do and five months into my first pregnancy when I was feeling like a beached whale, he suggested a change in my wardrobe might help and took me shopping at Liz Lange, a New York City maternity boutique.  He was right.  Walking around in leather maternity pants made my disappearing waste line a little easier to take. Dennis showed his flare when he proposed as well, turning what I thought was a business trip into an engagement vacation. That boat on the left is where he asked me to marry him. As Mo showed me how to sew its panel to the others while our kids played in her basement, I was struck by how appropriate it was that my married life got started on a boat. My engagement to Dennis seemed to forecast big adventures to come.  We’ve had plenty as a couple but our engagement also incited a personal journey into my family’s history.

Dennis is Irish-American and Catholic. Years before, when my grandfather first told me about his interracial grandparents, Tempy Burton and Col. W. R. Stuart, he said that the Colonel was Irish and that the colonel’s wife was a devout Catholic.  It seemed like my family had come full circle. So soon after I got engaged, I went to New Orleans to visit my grandmother, Lillie Mae, and learn more about the Colonel, Tempy and their daughter Josephine.  15 years later, I know that the Colonel was Scottish not Irish and that his wife, Elizabeth was devout but as a Methodist not a Catholic.   I also know a lot more about all of my ancestors as well as myself.  I’m glad to be on this present adventure with Dennis and our girls as well as the parallel journey into my family’s past.  I hope that you’re enjoying your life’s adventure too, wherever it takes you.

Happy Father’s Day!

P.S. Check out my cousin, Monique’s blog, Tempy’s Treasure which highlights her talent for turning people’s memories into heirlooms.

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

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, 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‘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?

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