Fearless Females: My great-grandmother, Josephine

In honor of Women’s History Month, Lisa Alzo at the Accidental Genealogist blog has been providing prompts all month to honor our female ancestors.  Today’s prompt is to write a mini profile on one of our fearless female family members. So, on the last day of Women’s History month, I’m honoring my great-grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford.

According to census reports and marriage and death certificates, Josephine Burton was born in 1875 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi to a former slave, Tempy Burton and her master, Col. W.R. Stuart. She was the youngest of Tempy’s seven children, probably all fathered by the Colonel, and was 14 years younger than her oldest sibling, Alfred Burton Stuart. Like Josephine, I’m the youngest in my family and I am also 14 years younger than my oldest sibling.

At the age of 16, Josephine started writing to the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist Episcopal newspaper based in New Orleans.  Over the years, her writing went from short letters about her attendance at camp revivals to Uncle Cephas, probably the newspaper’s editor, to long impassioned editorials about prayer and every day life as a Christian.  With her passion for Methodism, it’s no surprise that she married a Methodist reverend, James Ford when she was 19.  They made their home in Ocean Springs along with the rest of her family and had six children, including my grandfather, Martin Luther Ford. Most of her time probably went into caring for her home and children single-handed, since, from newspaper accounts, James was often preaching throughout the Delta and attending church conferences out of town.

She also had an interesting way of disciplining according to my cousin, Shawnique who heard a few stories about her from our grandpa, Martin. Grandpa loved baseball and when he misbehaved, Josephine would make him wear a girl’s dress in an attempt to keep him inside away from his beloved baseball.  The shame of being dressed like a girl was no deterrent to Grandpa.  He just went outside in his dress and hit the ball and ran the bases all the same.

But Josephine did not live to meet any of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren.  She died in 1922 of tuberculosis when she was about 47 years-old. But her passion for writing and religion survived in her newspaper articles. Here’s a transcription of one of her first letters to the Southwestern Christian Advocate, February 5, 1891:

Dear Uncle Cephas: I must write and tell you that the dear old Southwestern is a welcome visitor every week to my house.  I love it more and more every time it comes.  Our Presiding Elder, Rev. B.L. Crump, was with us recently and preached a soul-stirring sermon.  Our pastor is Rev. J.K. Comfort.  He has gone to conference.

Your niece,

Josephine Burton, Ocean Sprins, Miss.

A few years later on November 30, 1893 in an editorial entitled “Hindrances to Prayer” she wrote:

The church is being sorely afflicted by the materiality of the times; earth is shutting out heaven; time is eclipsing eternity; a bold and specious humanitarianism is destroying worship; the essential idea of God is being depraved;

Strong words, from a strong woman.

“The Whipping Man”: Civil War history on stage


Last night, I saw the powerful play, “The Whipping Man,” starring Andre Braugher, Andre Holland and Jay Wilkison at City Center in Manhattan.  It’s the story of three Jewish men at the end of the Civil War. Two are newly freed slaves and one is a Confederate soldier (their master) fresh from battle and the trio has to navigate their shifting relationship.  As I watched,  I couldn’t help but think of how my ancestors would have had to make similar choices.

My great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton, was in her 40s when freedom arrived at her doorstep in Ocean Springs, Mississippi where she lived with her masters, Elizabeth McCauley Stuart and Col. W.R. Stuart.  Tempy bore several of the colonel’s children including my great-grandmother, Josephine for whom this blog is named. Tempy was illiterate from all the census records I’ve seen and it would have been difficult to say the least for her to up and move. By the time the Civil War was over she’d already had at least one son by the Colonel, Alfred Burton Stuart, so it would have been even more difficult to move with a small child.   Like the slaves in the play, she would have had to decide if she wanted to stay in the same town, the only one she’d known for most of her life or head out without knowing how to read or write and try to make a life for herself somewhere new.  Should she sever all ties to the people who once owned her and with whom she now had blood ties or could she find a way to take that bitter relationship and make it palatable like the characters seemed to be doing as they ate bitter herbs during their Passover Seder. Bitter herbs or Maror symbolize the bitterness of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt.   But what most stirred me watching a dramatization of what was in a way my family’s real life, was mention of the word “love” among people in an inherently imbalanced relationship such as slavery. To elaborate on the love idea would spoil the play.  So, instead I’ll pose a question: Could love exist?  What about their shared faith, which did not keep the white Jew from enslaving the black ones? Could their common belief  alleviate the scars slavery left on them all?

These are all things I wonder every time I look at my ancestors’ faces pictured in the header. My great-grandmother probably inherited her beliefs the way the slaves in the play inherited their Jewish faith from their master. Did my ancestors’ shared faith as Methodist Episcopalians help them forge a new relationship after emancipation?  Tempy and Elizabeth lived together for most of their lives.  Tempy and the colonel had at least two children together, but possibly seven before and well after slavery ended. Did any or all of them believe there was love between them? Unless I turn up a diary, I’ll never be able to unequivocally answer these question, but some of the things I’m finding in  my research journey are at least providing possible explanations.

If you’re in the New York area, “The Whipping Man” is worth seeing especially as we celebrate Black History month (Braugher is an actor worth celebrating) and commemorate the upcoming sesquicentennial anniversary of the the Civil War. “The Whipping Man” is bittersweet food for thought.

Motivation Monday: Finding Ancestors in the Stirling Family Papers

Finally, the Stirling Family papers have arrived on five rolls of microfilm at my local library!

The Stirling Family papers are a collection of deeds, wills, diaries of slave life, and letters that belonged to the Lewis Sterling family, owner of several plantations in Louisiana.  I learned this summer that the Stirlings owned my third great-grandmother, Eliza Burton, her children, Nancy and Albert Burton, and her sisters Peggie Manrow and Bettie Matthews.  They all lived on the Stirling’s Attakapas plantation. Now, all I have to do is carefully comb through the microfilm reels to see if they contain any information about my enslaved ancestors. It took me four hours to get through just one roll, so this could take awhile. For the foreseeable future, scouring and transcribing these papers will be my number one genealogy goal.

In just one sitting on Friday, I found over 100 names of slaves owned by Lewis Stirling in these papers, and I only minimally diminished my eyesight squinting at my library’s out-of-focus microfilm screen in the process. Too bad none of the listed slaves were my relatives. But on the bright side, those slaves could be related to some other family genealogist who’s looking for their people the way I’m looking for Eliza.  So, on Friday, I’ll put as many of the names that I can transcribe along with the source information on this site under the tab “Stirling Family Slaves.”   I’ll try to update this page as often as possible to coincide with the Geneabloggers Friday theme, Friend of Friends. A Friend of Friends was the password used along the Underground Railroad to signal those assisting runaway slaves on their journey North to freedom. (See Sandra Taliaferro’s inspiring essay and the  A Friend of Friends site she helped create with Luckie Daniels.)

The other good news about transcribing these papers is that they’ll give me a chance to visit with my cousin, Monique, since she’s offered to risk her eyesight to help me.

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.

Celebration Saturday: An Ancestry gift for my Blogiversary

My cousin, Monique outside of the Jackson County Land Records Office in Pascaguola, Mississippi where we discovered our enslaved ancestor Tempy Burton was a property owner .

It was a year ago today that I first introduced my family to the blogosphere and began sharing about my search for my roots.  So, it was a nice little anniversary surprise to receive a message from the Historic Society in Kent County, Maryland with more information about my family.

A few weeks back, I sent an email to the Historic Society inquiring about a piece of property that used to belong to my third great-grandfather, William R. Stuart.  Stuart lived most of his life in Kent County and wrote about his property, Denbeigh or Denby (he spells it both ways) several times in his voluminous letters.  In them, he states that his wife and several sons are buried at Denbeigh.  From his letters, it seems he lost the property because he could no longer afford it.  At one point, he even asks my great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart to buy it back for him.  From subsequent letters, it’s clear that his son never fulfills this wish.

Since learning about this property earlier this year, I’ve tried to locate it.  I think the Historic Society of Kent may have found it.  According to the voice mail their staffer, Joan left for me, they found a place called Denbeigh in Queen Anne County mentioned in a book written by someone named Emory.  The book cites the property being owned in Centerville in 1806.    The book also mentions a William R. Stuart owning a packet business in 1805, describes him as a noted horse breeder in 1822 and as an elected representative to the legislature as well as an officer of the public lottery.

Horses come up several times in Stuart’s letter as does his public service as both a legislator and President of Maryland’s State Senate.  I think this is my William Stuart referred to in the book.  But I’ll have to wait until Monday when Joan  is back at work before I can find out how to get my hands on that book and pinpoint the location of Denbeigh.

What a great anniversary present.  And what a great year of discoveries.  I thought it couldn’t get much better than finding out that my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton went from slave to property owner.  But I’m realizing each new discovery is sweet in its own way. Thanks to all of you geneabloggers for sharing your stories.  It inspires me to share mine too and thanks for the anniversary wishes!

Treasure Chest Thursday: The Trip of a Lifetime

Beautiful Front Beach, Ocean Springs, Mississippi, apparently unaffected by the oil spill (not one tar ball found)!

We found so much new information, and made so many happy memories, but here are  five treasures  from our dig that immediately come to mind:

  • 5. Standing in front of the stained glass windows dedicated to my great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart and his wife, Elizabeth McCauley which decorate the sanctuary at St. Paul’s Church in Ocean Springs. The lovely employees there took pictures of us in front of the windows.  And parishioner, Terry Linder drove us out to the cemetery to pay our respects to our people.
  • 4. Visiting the graves of my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton, great, great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart and their children all at  Evergreen cemetery in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  In New Orleans, we  visited my grandmother, Lillie Mae Ford at Lakelawn Cemetery,  my third great-grandfather William R. Stuart who rests across the street from her in a mausoleum at Cypress Grove, and my grandfather, Martin Ford at Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metarie.
  • 3. Discovering that Col. W.R. Stuart  had a family bible that used to be stored at St. Paul’s.  Sadly, it’s been lost.
  • 2. Talking to a 95 year-old woman who knew Monique’s great-grandmother, Tempy Elizabeth Stuart.  She remembered Tempy Elizabeth playing the piano for her and her family at her home.
  • 1. Learning that great, great-grandma Tempy Burton who had been a slave and couldn’t read or write, owned a home! In deed books it was called Tempy Burton’s Lot.

Tombstone Tuesday: Great, Great-Grandma’s Gussied Up Grave

Great, great-grandma Tempy Burton's grave looking spiffy! The colorful rocks are mementos prepared by Monique, myself and our daughters before we left on our journey.

While on our research trip last week to the Mississippi Gulf, my cousin Monique and I paid our respects to our ancestors’ graves, including great, great-grandma Tempy Burton’s located at the Evergreen Cemetery in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  We were overcome with emotion (and mosquitos) when we came upon her tombstone, covered by a canopy of trees and overlooking a bayou. We were also struck by how clean and white the tombstone looked especially since it’s almost 100 years old!  Could it be that someone gave Tempy’s tombstone a makeover?  (Maybe Granny told them her people were coming!)

But seriously, this is what her tombstone looked like a few months back when Find A Grave volunteer Ann Nash discovered it:

Tempy's grave at Evergreen Cemetery a few months ago, courtesy of Ann Nash.

Treasure Chest Thursday: Stirling Family Papers

Google is the gift that keeps on giving.

After finding out that a Dr. Stirling owned some of my great, great-grandmother Tempy’s relatives, I punched his name and a few other facts into the search engine  and was thrilled when a collection of papers popped up.

According to the inventory of this  special collection at the Louisiana State University, the Lewis Stirling family papers have a plethora of information on the family’s slaves including everything from a register of slaves to itemized lists of clothing and shoes handed out to those in bondage.

This weekend, I spent a day at Princeton University’s Firestone library where a copy of the papers is also stored and after many hours, I had barely scratched the surface of the five microfilm reels archiving this family’s antebellum years.  Even though I haven’t gotten to the info I’m looking for, the Stirling papers make for fascinating reading.  All of the wills I’ve read so far stipulate that slave families are not to be separated (which makes me wonder why my great, great-grandmother got separated from her mother, siblings and aunt).  And in a three page contract with an overseer, one Stirling slave owner goes to pains to explain exactly how slaves should be disciplined (never with more than a dozen stripes and never with the butt end of the whip) and that the owner should be called if the overseer thinks they’ve done something to merit harsher treatment.

Can’t wait to see what other insights the Stirling Family Papers hold.

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