Black Girl Gone Back to Africa

This revelation about my ancestry is coming sooner than expected.  On Saturday I did some research at the Schomburg in Harlem. I was only there for about 1.5 hours. I spent at least ten minutes of that time shaking and in tears…the super duper happy kind. Back to Africa kind of happy.

I went with a focused mission. In an attempt to tie up some loose ends before heading south, I wanted to take a look at a book my great grandfather, Charles Sumner Long (my mother’s paternal grandfather), wrote back in 1939. Since he and his father were both prominent leaders in the A.M.E. Church in Florida, it makes sense that the book is about the history of the church. I recently purchased and read a book about this same history, which made numerous references to Charles’ father, Thomas Warren Long. I have also come across numerous references to Charles’ book. But unfortunately, it’s no longer in print and can now only be found on microfiche. Hence my trip to the Schomburg.

My expectations weren’t too high. I suspected the book would carry a neutral tone and as the author, Charles wouldn’t go into much detail about his family. So when I saw a photo of Charles on one of the first pages (I had never seen his image before), I was satisfied and felt my 1.25 hour-long trip to Harlem was worthwhile.

I set myself up with a well-funded copy card, prepared to print any page that made reference to anyone with the last name Long. I scrolled through the book, zooming, straightening and focusing the film almost obsessively. I printed various pages with tidbits about Charles and his father’s role in the establishment of numerous churches in Florida. Somewhere in the middle of the book, between two chapters about a black bishop and a black politician, Charles wrote a brief chapter about his (and my) family history. I started crying as soon as I read, “He was the slave of John Roberts…” It felt like striking genealogy gold.

Here’s what I read:

Can this even be real?!  He dumped so much information on my lap that it took me some time to process. In all honesty, after I printed the page, I had to put it out of my mind just to regain the capacity to get through the rest of the book. And not until I left the library did I fully digest exactly what I had learned about James Long, as well as Thomas (though I already had a small bit of his story). I’m still digesting it, really.

First of all, most people assume that if their ancestors survived the slave trade, they came from the west coast of Africa.  And since the Zulus are from southern Africa, not many people are even aware they fell victim to slave traders.  But it happened, and apparently not so infrequently.  According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1783 and 1825, 25,477 were taken from southeastern Africa to Cuba alone, (21,038 disembarked).  Although his circumstances were less common, my third great grandfather certainly wasn’t alone.

The Spanish trade to Havana, Cuba started in 1789, which is perhaps right before the time James would have arrived.  And apparently Matanzas was big on sugar production.  So I can make the assumption that James was working on a sugar plantation.  Beyond that, I can’t even begin to imagine what he experienced.  An entirely new area for research has opened up.

Although I have found an African ancestor, which for many would be the jackpot that brings such a project to a close, there is so much more work to be done.  I need to catch up on these areas of history that I previously had no idea related to me.  As far as the Longs, there is one big, gaping hole in the story. If James purchased his freedom in Cuba and moved to Florida, under what circumstances did his son come to be enslaved? Was he also re-captured into slavery after moving to Florida? And was his wife enslaved as well? I’ll need to do some research on this John Roberts character in Jacksonville. Perhaps details about his plantation will direct me to the details that will fill in these gaps.

And speaking of traveling (was I at some point?), these new insights have added at least two more trips to my agenda, keeping in mind my agenda has become more of a long-term thing.  Cuba (Matanzas in particular) and Mozambique, since it seems the most common route from southeastern Africa to Cuba was from Mozambique to Havana. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.  But who knows what kind of records of the trade they kept  in either Mozambique or Havana?  I may be getting greedy, but I think I might have a chance to learn James Long’s African name.

Visiting the Past

As most of you know, Amsterdam isn’t the only journey I’ve been seeking recently. I have been working hard for the past few months on researching my family history. It’s become a borderline obsession, really. It only took one minor discovery on an 1880 census record (a woman whom I recently figured out wasn’t even my actual ancestor) to trigger hours and hours spent online, and more recently in the NY Public library to put together puzzle pieces of stories that go back almost 200 years.

The first couple of months felt easy. Everywhere I looked I found treasures of information. In combination with long phone calls, memories, and investigative skills of my mother, it seemed like we could go as far back as we cared to. Maiden names, siblings, parents, spouses (and surprise multiple spouses), birth dates, death dates, burial locations – so much information was there waiting for us. And then it was a matter of documenting addresses and understanding migration patterns on both my mother’s and father’s side, which strangely overlap in some cases. All more time consuming than challenging.

But after a few months of taking advantage of the low hanging fruit, it’s become time to start climbing the trees. I am still uncovering new information, just not as frequently. For instance, the woman I mentioned above from the 1880 census – I had been told my 2nd great grandmother on my father’s side was Anna. She was always Anna. So when I found her, along with a woman by my great grandmother’s name listed as her daughter, it was a no brainer. But last week, after further research, and finding the death certificates of two of her children (including my great grandmother, Mamie), I not only learned that her maiden name was Scott, but her first name was Emma. Emma Scott…not Anna. Along with that, I found her husband, a man whose identity has eluded me this entire time: John A. Perry. So my original sources have not been exhausted yet. But it’s about time for me to take the next step to uncover more details, more names, and hopefully more years.

The next step in this research project involves getting on a plane, meeting my mother in Atlanta, and essentially taking a trip back in time to learn more about our family. At the end of this month, we’ll rent a car and drive to two small cities in Georgia: Dawson and Albany. Much of my mother’s family originates there. In Dawson I’m hopeful that we may be able to break through the intimidating barrier to research known as slavery. If we can get our hands on some property records for the man we suspect enslaved my third and second great grandmothers, Julia and Lora, we may be able to find out where Julia came from and the names of her parents. Just the thought of that makes me anxious to get there.

Lora’s son, my great grandfather, George (after whom my late uncle was named) later moved to Albany with his siblings after his mother died. George is the one with the white father and somewhat curious family circumstances that I described in an earlier post. When he was about 18, he was living down the street from my great grandmother, Essie – she was about 13. We believe they met during this time, although they weren’t married for another 10 years or so (after he returned from WWI). In Albany we plan to go to their old addresses and imagine what it must have been like for them to live there in 1910. Based on the Google maps streetview, we have a pretty good chance of seeing the original houses. There are a number of other items to uncover in Albany. But I have a feeling 1910 might be the coolest year.

From Albany we’ll head down to Jacksonville, Florida, where there’s just tons of history, for both my mother and father. Here’s a good one: my grandfather (mom’s father) never talked much about his family. So much of what we’re learning about them is brand new information. His grandmother’s married name was Laura Brooks. Unfortunately we don’t know Laura’s parents, and haven’t known her maiden name. We only have her married to my 2nd great grandfather as an adult. The curious thing is the earliest I’ve been able to find her in the census, in 1880 when she’s married with kids, several of her children have different last names – Mitchell, not Brooks. They’re listed as “stepchildren” in relation to Laura’s husband. Did she just have a lot of children before she was married, and gave them her maiden name? These children were relatively old, indicating she had them when in her late teens. But then, five years later, she’s still living with my 2nd great grandfather and they have several children, including my grandfather’s mother. (It only gets more confusing. So if you’re lost, just skip to the next paragraph.) The older, half-siblings are no longer there. But they just might be adult neighbors living with their own families. Instead, there’s a whole new set of children with yet another last name – Kyler. These Kyler children are similar in age to the Brooks children. They’re listed as stepchildren to Laura’s husband, just like the Mitchells five years earlier. Who is the father of the Kyler children? And while we’re at it, who’s the father of the Mitchell children? And where were the Kyler children five years earlier when the youngest of them was born six years earlier. Were they living with their father? And how is Laura still functioning after having all of these children (we’re up to 12)? Well, long story less long, we discovered her in 1870, 5 years before she met my 2nd great grandfather. She’s living with the oldest set of kids, but they’re very young. There’s no husband/father. But her last name is Mitchell. She’s living with two single men – one has kids; the other is alone and named…Harrington Kyler. The oldest Kyler child was born 4 years later. Something fishy is going on there. And I’d like to get to the bottom of it. Hopefully we’ll get another clue while in Jacksonville.

And, with just as much importance, my mother grew up in Jacksonville. So while we’re there in the depths of history, I’m expecting we’ll also take this as an opportunity to remember the not so distant past, allowing her to revisit her childhood.  I’m looking forward to learning more about my ancestors on this trip.  I’m looking forward to learning more about my mother.  And I’m looking forward to learning more about myself.  All equally.

This might be a first: I’m more excited about this vacation than any other I have taken in the past.  And I’m not even leaving the country!

There’s History…and then there’s My Story

We already know I was the angry black girl in high school. I was an Africana Studies major in college. In law school I focused primarily on public interest and civil rights law. I care and am quite passionate about all things related to black people. The ultimate goal of this whole journey is to provide young black Americans with an opportunity to learn about their ancestry and the struggles of our people in order to garner more self respect and esteem. But only now, as I have been digging into the stories of my ancestors, has the history that influences all of us begun to truly resonate and affect me so deeply.

Although I didn’t realize I was doing it, I had somehow placed the middle passage, hundreds of years of slavery, reconstruction, black codes, jim crow…all of it into some type of academic bubble. And now with names, and even some faces, to associate with the words in the history books, I feel the pains of our brutal past that much more intensely. My great great grandmother survived this. And my great grandfather accomplished that in spite of this.

No matter how much reading, how many papers, and how many opinions I may have established, the story develops an entirely new tone when there’s blood involved. Kind of like when you watch a tragic story on the news. You learn about a child who has lost both of her parents in a fire. Wow. That’s really sad. I can’t imagine what she must be going through. But then imagine finding out it’s a member of your family suffering. It’s no longer just a regretful shame that you wish wasn’t so. It’s now gut wrenching and worthy of tears – a much more personal pain.

Eventually I’m hoping to bridge the deepest gaps in my family history and identify which of my ancestors actually crossed the Atlantic to suffer enslavement in Florida, Georgia, and wherever else they may have landed. If Alex Haley could do it, there’s no reason I can’t (well, actually there are a ton of reasons – but I may as well try to beat the odds). I’ve gotten to the point of my family tree, from the beginning of the 19th century, where everyone was enslaved for the duration of their lives. Born and died during a time when they were valued less than an automobile, and in many cases viewed as disposable. They, needless to say, were human beings, although they were never treated as such. But there was a time – a person…people who were born free. Born free as Africans, forced from their homes and families, enslaved and subjected to inhumane treatment for the rest of their lives, with the knowledge that many descendant generations to come would suffer the same fate. I know more than I care to know about that fate. But I want to know their names. I want to know anything about them. I want to identify with them. I want to pay tribute to them by removing them from an academic bubble about slavery and truly knowing their stories. It may sound crazy, but I want to feel that pain.

As I head back to school to study the sociology of migrant people, I potentially will gain even more of a cold, academic perspective of what it means to be far removed from one’s homeland. I’m sure I’ll analyze how individuals tend to hold onto anything that’s familiar in order to maintain a clear identity and value what/who is truly their own. But I’m interested to know if others have a similar experience or reaction when learning about personal family history. Is it uncommon to reevaluate or relearn history after you locate your place in it? It means so much more to know who of your own was there – and all of us have people who lived through every stage of it – good and bad.

Signs of Approval

It’s easy to pick up the phone and call my mother. Although I wish she could live closer (she’s currently living in Chicago), we talk all the time – and she reads this blog…Hi, Mom! So when I conjured up this Amsterdam plan, and as I have gone through the challenging process of figuring out how to make it work, I have felt her support all along the way. And when I learned I had been accepted to UvA, it was easy to call her to share the good news and hear her reaction. It’s a blessing to receive that level of support from parents, no matter how old you are.

The harder parent to communicate with is my father. He died in September 2004. No more phone calls, no more funny stories, no more advice, and no more celebrating good news. At least not in the traditional ways. Now I see him and interact with him only in my dreams, forcing me to rely on questionable memories of what has transpired during my sleep. Not ideal – but I’ll take it.

On Monday night, the same day I found out about UvA, I had a dream I was already in Amsterdam. It was still new to me, as I felt a mixture of excitement and nerves. From what I remember, I was walking around the city alone, until I was suddenly sitting in a room – perhaps a hotel room or poorly decorated apartment. I must have been sitting on a couch. And there was my father, stretched out on a bed, super relaxed and happy. He was eating some type of snack – my guess is peanuts.

Sometimes in my dreams about my father he’s really sick and frail, conjuring up the real life memories of his battle with cancer. But most other times, he’s healthy and happy, and we laugh. This time we were laughing in Amsterdam. I don’t remember the exact content of the conversation. Maybe it was something about how far we’ve both come since we last saw each other. Or maybe we were talking about something that happened in life – one of my memories with him. I’m not sure. I just remember thinking how much I wanted to take a picture of him. I wasn’t so much aware that he was dead in my dream (sometimes I’m very aware in my dreams that it’s a visit from the other side). But I knew I hadn’t seen him in too long, feeling a painful urge to capture the happy moment and not forget. The funny thing is I spent so much time focusing on remembering the sight of him that I forgot to pay attention to what we were saying.

But the content of the conversation may not have been the most important thing. It felt more like a visit to say congratulations, and he approves. He not only approves, but just like he came with me to Oakland, and then to Brooklyn, he’ll be along for the ride to Amsterdam…eating peanuts and laughing as we go (he eats the peanuts – I personally don’t like them).

I was smiling when I woke up. The visit felt substantial and satisfying – as if we actually spent some time together. I never doubted for a moment that this journey I’m on would have been something that pleased him and made him proud. But it was quite a delight to actually see the happiness on his face. If only I could have gotten that damn picture!

Anyway…Hi, Dad!

disregard the white doll on the stair

Roots Part 2

I typically write the majority of my posts on my Blackberry while riding the train. It’s a good use of a long commute.  A few days ago I started writing an overdue post that immediately assumed a ho-hum tone, as I focused on feeling deflated and just generally over the whole thing.  I wrote for my entire ride – or at least until the train reached the stop before mine.  Frozen Blackberry.  It just refused to go on participating in my exercise of defeat and self-pity.  I threw it in my bag to test later.  And sure enough, there was no trace of what I had written when I was in my apartment ten minutes later. The phone didn’t need to be rebooted and everything else was fully functional.   Only that post was affected.  So I took it as a sign.  No more ho-hum attitude, at least not in writing.

So allow me to take this opportunity to update you on where I am with my genealogical research.   Since my last post, I have continued going strong.  It’s all incredibly exciting.  But I’ll just share a few more highlights:

From slavery to the state senate.

It’s possible. And I have an ancestor to prove it. Thomas W. Long, my mother’s father’s grandfather (my great great grandfather) was born in 1839 in Florida. As an adult, he escaped from slavery and made his way to South Carolina (I assume on foot) to enlist in the state’s first all black infantry, which later came to be known as the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry. He enlisted one month before his brother, who also made his way from Florida. While he fought in the civil war, he took pride in the ability to fight for his, his family’s, and his people’s freedom. Thomas married his wife in 1860, before he went to S. Carolina. And since their third child was born in S. Carolina (the others were all born in Florida), we have reason to believe she, along with other wives based on the stories of black soldiers at the time, traveled with her husband throughout the war. About this war that had so much at stake for black folks, TW Long was quoted stressing the importance for black men to fight on the side of the union in order to look his children and their children in the eye. (I won’t provide the actual quote here because it was provided by a white man, quoting TW in broken english. My mother fairly challenges its legitimacy.)

Following the civil war, the family settled in Florida. Thomas went on to found the first African Methodist Episcopal church (St. Paul’s AME) in Ocala Fl in 1870.  In 1968-69 he was the superintendent of schools in Madison County, Fl.  And then he was elected to the state senate, serving for several years between 1873 and 1879. He also served on the Board of Trustees of Edward Waters College.  He was self-taught, and clearly a natural leader.

How do I know all of this? He’s in history books! Well, at least books about the history of black Christians in Florida. But, believe it or not, I found most of it through creative google searching.  I just started reading Laborers in the Vineyard of the Lord, which discusses the story of a significant portion of his life.

The white people.

As I mentioned in the earlier post about the long-term relationship between the white man and black woman on my mother’s side, I already knew there was some not so distant white blood in the family (but don’t worry, I’m still identifying as black – though I did briefly consider changing the name of the blog to “Mulatto Girl Gone”). Although many white folks at that time don’t come with too much to rave about, they’re exciting to research because, the further back you go in time, their information is much more accessible. Prior to the 1870 census, enslaved black folks (and I have yet to discover a branch of my family that didn’t survive slavery in the south) didn’t exist outside of property records and other heinous, inappropriate areas of the archives rooms. Most white folks, on the other hand, with relative ease, can trace way back to the 15th century, and even earlier if you care to go back that far. So in the interest of fairness to all of my ancestors, and a greed for more information, I did some investigation into the white side.

And turns out what I learned can get me an entry pass to a Daughters of the American Revolution meeting. My 6th great grandfather, Alexander Harper (1744-1798), fought in the American Revolution. The stories describe him as being kidnapped by “the Indians,” assumed dead, and taken to Canada. He was there for some time, while his wife, Betsy Bartholomew (1749-1833), held things down on the home front. When he returned home he was a local hero. He and Betsy later joined a few other families to become the first white settlers of Harpersfield, OH. Not only is the town named after Alexander, but he’s buried in the Col. Alexander Harper cemetery. Betsy’s story is also covered in some of the colonial history books. Apparently she was relatively cool, mostly because she was described as doing anything for the safety of her family. And even more importantly, she was was cool with “the Indians.” I take that for what it’s worth.

It all ties back to the Netherlands.

So here’s the crazy part. Although Betsy Bartholomew was born in Lehigh, PA, her father, Johan Bartholomew, was born in Rotterdamn, Netherlands in 1710! And his father, Jacob, was born in the Netherlands in 1678!  The Bartholomews lived in the Netherlands for about a century after fleeing from France due to the persecution of the Huguenots.  This doesn’t exactly make the Netherlands into the motherland. But maybe it can qualify as the distant great grandmother land?  Imagine their surprise when I show up in Amsterdam shouting, “hello my Dutch cousins! It’s good to be home!”

Black Girl Gone to Her Roots

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.