Travel Tuesday: Reclaiming History in Richmond, One Cousin at a Time

Me at Libby Hill Park in Richmond, VA. where the view is said to so closely resemble that of Richmond on the Thames in England that it gave the city its name. Along with a great view, the park boasts an enormous Confederate monument. Photo courtesy of Jane Feldman.

The above picture was taken this weekend in Richmond, Va where I joined people from all over the country to participate in the first national gathering of Coming to the Table.  CTTT is an organization that aims to address and heal the historical harms of slavery by bringing together the descendants of slaves and slave owners and, through our personal narratives, tell a more complete story of our country’s history. To get to historic Libby Hill Park overlooking the James River from the Richmond Hill retreat center where we were staying, our group of roughly 70 had to walk past the church where Patrick Henry famously proclaimed, “Give Me Liberty or give me death,” never minding that he owned slaves.  We had to stand in the shadow of  a monolithic statue of a Confederate Soldier that towered above us while we listened to the story of the city’s past.

The plaque that I’m leaning on explains how Richmond may have gotten its name.  But what the plaque doesn’t say is that the area had belonged to Native Americans for thousands of years when Europeans arrived and that it was once the largest slave trading post outside of New Orleans. Before photographer Jane Feldman took this picture, our CTTT friends, the children of slaves, masters, and sometimes both,  gathered for a healing ritual at this site. Could there be a more  perfect place for us to acknowledge our complicated connection to each other as the descendants of both slaves and slave owners and try in some small personal way to heal the strain of that legacy while clasping hands, and calling the names of our ancestors out into the middle of our circle?

As a memento of our time together,  CTTT member Chandler Dennis distributed a brilliant bumper sticker that read, “Creating Peace, One Cousin at a time.”  (Whether we’re actually blood relatives or not, CTTT members often call each other cousins, because, in the big picture, we’re all related.) I’d like to think that more specifically, we’re reclaiming our history, one cousin at a time.

So, after our momentous weekend together, I’m motivated to spread the word and invite more people to the table.  Bring your cousins.

My CTTT cousins and me at the Confederate Monument in Richmond, VA.

Words of Wisdom Wednesday: MLK’s Vision Manifested

In his historic speech given at the march on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said 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.”

Tomorrow, I’ll be traveling to Richmond, VA for the first national gathering of Coming to the Table, an organization inspired by King’s vision. I’ll be among about 70 descendants of slaves and slave owners from all parts of the country coming together at that table of brotherhood from March 16th through the 18th.

Coming to the Table is an organization that aims to acknowledge and heal wounds of racism rooted in the US’s history of slavery.

Finding and becoming a part of this organization is one of the many unexpected perks of researching my family’s history.   All I really wanted to do when I set out on this journey was to discover what happened to my great-grandmother, Josephine, the daughter of a slave and master.   I didn’t bank on making new friends with my far flung family members or allies in the descendants of the people who used to own my kin.  And I certainly had no lofty goal of joining a group that wanted to heal the wounds of slavery.  But I’m doing all three. Who says genealogy can’t be life-changing?

What unexpected bonuses have you received from researching your family’s history?

Monumental Monday: Freedom’s Fortess National Park

Fort Monroe, Hampton, VA (photo from the National Parks Service)

Two weeks ago on November 1st, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. a National monument. Fort Monroe is the site where slavery had it’s beginning and ending here in the U.S.

I learned about this historic event a week after it happened.   Thanks to an October snowstorm, I had no electricity, phone, Internet or cable service for eight days. I got a real taste of what it must have been like for our pre-19th century ancestors – reading by candlelight, keeping logs on the fire, and our entire family of four sleeping in the same bed to stay warm! But news of our newest national monument made my time in the dark seem like a blip on the radar. It took 150 years to bring this historic Fort to national attention so I guess I”m keeping in step by acknowledging the occasion two weeks after it happened. Better late than never.

As important a piece of our American History Fort Monroe is, I’d never heard of it until earlier this year when I read an excerpt of Adam Goodheart’s book, “1861″ in the New York Times magazine.  Goodheart wrote in detail of three slaves who came to the Fort seeking  freedom during the Civil War and Union General Benjamin Butler’s decision to keep them there by distinguishing them as contraband of war, instead of returning them to their owners as the Fugitive Slave Act required.  This opened the floodgates and thousands of slaves followed suit.  Butler would later  take over command of New Orleans.    My second great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart fought for the Confederates to  protect New Orleans unsuccessfully.  I wonder if he had a chance to see Butler?

As I read Goodheart’s  account, I immediately started planning my pilgrimage to the Fort appropriately called Freedom’s Fortress.  Even though I have yet to discover when my enslaved African ancestors arrived on American soil, or  which port they passed through, Fort Monroe symbolizes their arrival here and their place in American history.  It’s like Ellis Island and Plymouth Rock – a touchstone for my history.

As coincidence would have it, Goodheart heads the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, MD. My Scottish American third great-grandfather,  William R. Stuart  graduated from there and went on to be a Maryland state senator. Some of his papers that describe his life as a merchant selling everything from wheat to slaves are archived at the college’s library. Tomorrow, I will speak to the college about my family’s history, from the senators to the slaves.

When Goodheart invited me, I googled the distance between Chestertown, Maryland (the site of Washington College) and Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.  I wanted to see if I’d have enough time to fit in my pilgrimage to Fort Monroe after I spoke at Washington College.  But it’s too far.  But someday, I do hope to visit both back to back, both monuments to two facets of my history.

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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