I’ve been going a little nuts recently with worry and sadness. Between waiting to hear from Amsterdam and becoming more and more checked out from my job, my daily routine mostly consists of being down in the dumps. I was already feeling unhappy, which is why I started on this unpredictable journey. But it’s definitely getting harder as each day/month passes and my uncertainty gains momentum.
But I found something that has served as a nice distraction from my thoughts. My ancestors! It all started when I watched Sarah Jessica Parker on that show “Who Do You Think You Are?” From the title, I expected the show to be stupid and frivolous entertainment. Instead, it was incredibly interesting. I found myself wrapped up in Sarah’s ancestry, out to California during the gold rush, and then even further back to the Salem witch trials. By the end of the show, while I was fully entertained, I also felt a mix between envy and annoyance. How lucky she is to be able to trace her history so far back, looking at original documents from the 17th century that tell the story of her family. And how criminal it is that black folks in the Diaspora coming up from slavery are not afforded such a privilege. And how inconsiderate of Sarah to rub her past in our faces when she knows the American history she has discovered has been erased for so many of us (that’s irrational , I know. And for the record, I don’t blame Sarah Jessica Parker for slavery).
I used my frustration with a lack of knowledge as inspiration to acquire some knowledge. My mother embarked on a project to learn more about our family about a year ago, enlisting a friend who had a passion and better understanding of genealogy. So I had a good starting point on her side of the family. But since my mother is the oldest living person in her immediate family (she’s not old…but sadly everyone has died), my father died five years ago, and we’re estranged from those who remain on his side, my mom’s prior research and existing knowledge were my only starting points.
Once I defined the scope of the project (learn anything and everything there is to know about my family’s history), my first step was to sign up for an ancestry.com account. Not so coincidentally, they’re sponsors of the show I watched – these people know what they’re doing. With this I received a 14-day free trial, allowing me to create a family tree, browse through census records dating back as far as I could go, and start filling in the puzzle pieces of the lives of ancestors I previously didn’t know existed.
In day 12 of the free trial, and working nonstop with my mom to put the pieces together, we have already discovered some fascinating tidbits. For example, for all of the time my mother’s father knew my grandmother, he was lying about his age. She met him when she was 23 and wouldn’t have dated an 18-year old. So of course the most logical thing would have been to lie (logical for an 18-year old boy, at least). His secret is discovered only some 60+ years later.
My maternal great-grandfather’s mother (Lora) was born into slavery in 1862. His father (George) was a white man. Lora and George had a consensual relationship that lasted many years and resulted in several children. That wasn’t new information. But we discovered that Lora’s mother was enslaved by George’s father and Lora must have been born on that plantation. George’s father (my 3rd great-grandfather) enslaved at least 5 black people and served as a sargeant in the confederate army. Fifteen years later, in 1880, Lora was 14 and living with her mother. She was living next door to 18-year old George and his family. They had their first child that year, who died 5 months later from cholera. Lora and George never got married – of course they couldn’t. But, in spite of family scandal (vague stories of the sort reached my mom as a child), all of Lora’s kids took George’s last name. And in spite of being only a quarter black (Lora was listed as mulatto) at a time when blackness could have been viewed as a curse, all of Lora’s kids identified as black (rather than mulatto) and went on to marry the blackest people they could find. Unfortunately, their son (who we affectionately now refer to as “black George”) died when his daughter (my grandmother) was only a young child. So stories of his life are few. But learning these details about him make me feel like I’ve had at least an opportunity to shake his hand.
So far, the furthest back I have gone is 1820, when a woman named Murray was born into slavery, where she spent 45 years of her life. Murray’s son was my father’s great-grandfather, which makes Murray my third great-grandmother. The side of the tree that has me stuck is my dad’s family on his father’s side. My grandfather died before I was born. And his mother and father, Essie and Cicero, died when he was only a teenager. He barely knew them – and my dad never knew them or spoke of them. I didn’t know their names until I started this project. Today I learned that Cicero received a degree in Theology from Howard University in 1893. I even found a letter he sent to Frederick Douglass, requesting assistance as he tried to figure out how to support himself while making his way through school. But now I just want to know more. More and more.
And here we are less than two weeks later. A nice little distraction has turned into a full blown, life-changing project. I only hope I make them half as proud with who I am and who I strive to be as how proud I am to say they have made me.