Wednesday evening. Finding cover from the hot sun. Sipping on a beer with my feet in a pool. Making small talk with friendly strangers. This isn’t Brooklyn. I’m on vacation. In Albany, Georgia.
But as you probably know, this isn’t just any vacation. My mother and I have traveled here on a mission: uncovering the past and revealing my family’s quietly kept stories. Having started the research earlier this year online, so many mysteries came to light that just couldn’t be answered remotely. So we decided to come to the source…the south. Or some may say “the black belt.” Did you know the southeastern region of the U.S. was known by some as the black belt of the country, referring to the millions of black people sustaining the economy with free labor? The concentration of black people through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and the rest essentially looked like a black belt on the country’s waist when viewed graphically. Gross, but true. And no surprise that my ancestors were right in the heart of that belt…which now brings me here as well. Difference is I’m here visiting, drinking beer, my feet in a pool, and writing a blog from my blackberry…but that’s neither here nor there.
Starting in Atlanta, we settled into a rental car and immediately headed for the library in Macon. Although we don’t have any family from Macon, the abundance of genealogy records held there helped us to resolve a couple of outstanding mysteries. After a few hours there, we were on our way to Albany. With family from Dawson and Albany, which are no more than 20 minutes apart, we expected to spend at least two days digging through the archives and touring the streets. But since we don’t know any family in the area, we didn’t expect to make any significant personal connections. Fortunately, we were wrong about that.
After contacting the local historical society for some guidance on how to pursue research on the Harpers, a particularly mysterious side of the family, I was referred to a man who was familiar with them. After giving him a call, he in turn referred me to a woman, Kathy, who has some Harpers in her family. He said, “when you’re at the library, ask them to give her a call. She may be able to help you.” Sure, whatever.
Librarian (on the phone): “Hi Kathy, I have some people here who say they were referred to you by Ed. Would you be willing to speak with them about some family questions? Okay, here they are…”
Me: “Hi Kathy, I don’t want to take too much of your time. My mother and I are here in Dawson doing research on the Harper family. We’d love to know if you know any bits of information to share or have any insight on some sources we might refer to.”
Kathy: “Well isn’t that great?! It’s always exciting for me to talk to people who are researching the same families. I have done quite a bit of research on the Harper family that I’d be happy to share. In fact, Francis Harper and his wife Fannie lived in a house across the street from me. And I live in my grandmother’s house. Nellie Harper was my grandmother.”
Me (to myself): Oh shit!
Note: Nellie Harper is the sister to George C. Harper, my (white) 2nd great grandfather. Kathy is our cousin!
Second note: George C. Harper had a long-term relationship with a black woman, which led to my branch of the family. It’s unclear how much the white Harpers know about the black Harpers.
Me (a bit later in the conversation): “Kathy, are you familiar with any stories about George Harper having a black family?”
Kathy (in utter shock): “Well, NO!!”
Me: “Well, we’re actually from that side of the family. We have a lot to talk about.”
Kathy: “We certainly do. How about we meet tomorrow morning.”
Me: “I can’t wait.”
So here we are in the deep south, about to meet a white woman for the first time and tell her all about the relationship her great uncle had with a black woman, and the many children they had as a result. This is about to get very interesting…and all of our minds are about to be blown.