Happy Emancipation Day, 2013!

My grandmother, Louise Walton and our family's dog, Sheffy.

“On January 1, 1892, Miss Josephine Burton, Ocean Springs’ charming belle gave a very nice surprise party for her pastor, Rev. I. C. Rucker, assisted by Mrs. A.B. Stuart and Miss Violet Matthews.  A collection of $6.05 was taken, after which cake and lemonade were served.”

So, 119 years ago today, my great grandmother was throwing a party with her sister, Violet and her brother Alfred’s wife.  When I first read this notice in the personal section of the Southwestern Christian Advocate’s January 14, 1892 edition, I assumed it was a regular New Year’s Day party.  But after reading the next week’s issue, I noticed how another writer, Ada Smith of Sturgis, Mississippi, referred to January 1st as Emancipation Day.  During her church’s evening service, Ms. Smith stated that a professor read and explained the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and freed all slaves. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the historic document.

Since her mother and brother were born into slavery, I have a feeling that my great-grandmother, Josephine was celebrating the signing of that monumental document as much as she was the beginning of a new year and her beloved pastor. Josephine was also a devout Christian, her husband, James was a Methodist Episcopal minister, so perhaps the party was also an extension of Watch Night.

Methodism founder John Wesley originated Watch Night services in the mid-18th century, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal services, according to the United Methodist website. But Watch Night has a  special significance in in the African-American community dating back to the days of slavery.
At the end of the year, owners tallied their property and often sold slaves to pay debts, the website said. New Year’s Eve was often the last night a family of slaves would be together.  Then, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which was set to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863, slaves sat up the night before, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.

Even though I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal church and went to church on New Year’s Eve with my parents, I never knew the history behind Watch Night connected to slavery.  I only learned of that part last night because some friends at Coming to the Table mentioned how they would be participating in Watch Night as well as the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. I wonder why the slavery piece of the Watch Night tradition was never addressed in my AME congregation? Was it deliberate or simply never passed down from one generation to the next and, like a faulty link, broke the chain of this history?

This can easily happen.

I thought I knew all there was to know about my grandmother.  I lived just a few miles from her growing up and spent most summer days with her until I was 11.  She was like a second mother. So, I was shocked to learn several new things about her while she was visiting with me this holiday season – things that I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for my new dog.

On the first night of Kwanzaa while eating dinner, Granny commented that our new dog was so big, he reminded her of the pony she had as a girl.  I never knew she had a pony.  It was a Shetland pony she said, which is funny since my dog’s name begins with the same “she” sound. Her pony was her transportation to school. She hated when she had to miss school because first off, she liked school and second, it usually meant she had to stay home and slaughter the pigs on her family’s farm.  She thought of them as pets, not food.  In solidarity with her condemned bovine friends,  she swore she’d never eat chitterlings the way her school pals did, but  eventually, she caved.  Indeed it was my grandmother who gave me my first (and last) taste of pig intestine.

I also never knew that my grandma could handle a gun.  She learned how to use a winchester rifle when she was about seven she said for hunting rabbits.  My grandma was a regular Laura Ingalls Wilder, just black and from Oklahoma.  Had my dog not cozied up to her during dinner, these details about my grandma’s first decade of life, the time she refers to most often now that she is nearing 100, would have been entirely lost.  And to think, I didn’t even want a new dog.

How are you celebrating Emancipation Day?

Sources: The Southwestern Christian Advocate, January 14, 1892 and January 21, 1892.

Motivational Monday: Stoking the Family Flame

My daughters with Brian d'Arcy James who plays, Bick in GIANT at the Public Theater.

Yesterday over lunch, I got to talk to the grand niece of Edna Ferber, author of Giant, Show Boat and So Big. All epic family stories, it’s no wonder that Ferber’s grand niece, Julie Goldsmith Gilbert would want to keep her great aunt’s literary legacy alive.  Julie wrote her great aunt’s biography and championed Giant’s move from the page to the stage.  Thanks in part to Julie’s stewardship and the generous support of my in laws, Ted and Mary Jo Shen, Giant the musical is at the Public Theater in New York City until December 16th.

Julie’s passion about her great-aunt’s literary legacy is I’m sure what made my sister-in-law get us together for lunch.  (My sister-in-law has a gift for matching people.  She’s the one who introduced me to her brother, my husband of 16 years!) She recognized in Julie and me  two keepers of the family flames.

I left lunch inspired to attend to some of my own ancestry business that I’ve been neglecting and set an information gathering goal for the week.   I want to follow up on a lead I have on my great-grandfather, James Ford.

The man who gave me my last name was a reverend with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Mississippi. While his name appears in several issues of the ME Church’s official newspaper, the Southwestern Christian Advocate,  from the late 1800s to the beginning of the 1900s, he disappeared from  records after the 1920 census.  After checking out the United Methodist church’s official website, which gives an overview of the church’s split over slavery, I discovered they have a repository called the African American Methodist Heritage Center.  Turns out the Center is located at Drew University Library,  a stone’s throw from the town I grew up in.  The kind librarian there forwarded a few pages from the church’s 1924 Mississippi Annual Conference journal.  James Ford was listed among the honored dead.  According to the journal, my great-grandfather died in 1923, just a year after his wife, my great-grandmother Josephine.

Unfortunately, the state of Mississippi couldn’t locate his death certificate. I ordered it in hopes of learning his parent’s names which are sometimes listed on death certificates.  But I’m not deterred. Later this week, I’m heading over to Drew to see this Conference journal in person.  There is nothing like seeing an original document up close to illuminate an otherwise hidden clue, forge a new path to discovering more about an ancestor, or just reignite a spark to keep the ancestry fire burning.

What will you do this week to stoke your family’s flame?

*note – Edna Ferber’s book is Show Boat, not Showboat as written in the original post.

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