An anniversary, a milestone, and more to come

The one-year anniversary to mark my arrival in the Netherlands came when I was in Greece.   I sat in a cute little restaurant in Athens, avoiding returning to my temporary dorm-like residence, getting a little tipsy on wine.  At that time I attempted to write the 100th post for black girl gone.  Most of it was about the journey that brought me here – a journey that began far longer than a year ago, as evidenced by this blog alone.  But it was a ho-hum of a post, with the weepy sorrows of years long gone.  I can get plenty of that with a quick scan of old posts.  So fortunately, a dead battery and a failure to save resulted in the loss of what I had written.

Beyond acknowledgement of a challenging path, some really smart decisions, and a newly found trust in my instincts and distrust of expectations, I think my one-year anniversary and 100th post should focus on what’s next.  The year, and whatever else ahead…

1) Genealogy overload

I went almost completely dark on my personal family research well over a year ago.  And last year I picked up the projects of several others in Amsterdam, researching family histories that stem largely from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.  But I’ve even fallen behind with them.

No more of that.  Re-opening my own research, while furthering and creating noise around the local genealogy project will be a priority.  My family research has left plenty of unanswered questions.  And the local interest and passion for family history is certainly enough for me to gain more momentum for the project in Amsterdam.   For this reason, you can expect somewhat of a shift in this blog.  Expect more family history and genealogy-related posts.  Accept it, my friends.  This will be a defining aspect of my life.  In the longer-term, I expect it to take me back to the southern states of the U.S., Salt Lake City, Cuba, and southern Africa – at least.  I expect to earn the title of genealogist.  And I can’t wait.

ancestors await...

2) Write a Master’s thesis

By August.  I want to (and I will) finish by August.  Is denial of access to one’s family history a form of social oppression?  It will be some type of a comparative study of black Dutch and black Americans, as descendants of survivors of slavery, and their perceptions of identity, as potentially impacted by a (lack of) knowledge of ancestry.  Or something like that.

study habits

3) Suriname

It’s there.  And I don’t see why I shouldn’t be.  So I’m setting my sights on creating a plan to spend a few months moving a genealogy research project forward in Suriname by the end of this year.  This will require support, funding, and a more concrete idea.  But my instincts are telling me this will be important.  So before I understand it so clearly, I’m going to work on putting a plan into place.

Suriname census

4) More traveling; more writing

I continually taunt myself with the cliché, “life is short!” But hell if it isn’t.

I enjoy traveling.  And I enjoy writing.  I need to do more of both to spend more time enjoying this too-short life.

the look of travel

5) The fellas

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, to dramatic degrees.  All resulting in very little.  Dating/not dating/white boys/no boys/single lady/ cat lady.   I’m putting all of it away.  To be honest, this is less about some level of personal growth, and more about simple boredom with the subject.  Look, folks. I’m human, okay?  Of course I notice that most of my friends are in stable relationships that are leading to marriage and/or babies.  But that doesn’t mean any of this knowledge occupies a significant amount of space in my mind.  It shouldn’t.  And it doesn’t.

This year, whatever happens with the fellas will be fine with me.  Let’s just leave it at that.

"I don't like any of these boys..."

I enjoyed last year very much.  And it looks like, more than ever, I’m in control of the year ahead.   So I think I’ll enjoy this one even more.  I hope you’ll continue to join me!

The Genealogy Project

I was fortunate enough this past weekend to sit at a table with a diverse group of black folks who are just as interested in their family histories as I am in mine.  The best part of it is they’re allowing me to join them on their journeys to learn about their ancestors, as we will work as a supportive group of researchers in what I’m calling “the genealogy project.”  This makes me very happy.

So I’ve mentioned the internship already.  It started with an introduction to NiNsee.  Genealogy already fell within their purview, primarily for those with Surinamese and/or Antillean ancestry.  So when I proposed the idea of working with a group of people to help them research their family trees, they were into it.  But even with my enthusiasm and their support, I worried that it wouldn’t become a reality.  Between my focus on school and their already full plates, I thought it might be one of those things that gets pushed around and tweaked for awhile, until it’s finally forgotten about.

Fortunately, my pessimism is no longer a decision maker for me.  My new approach (most of the time) is to acknowledge what my hesitation or fear would want me to do, and then do the opposite – no matter how uncomfortable.  So in this case, I just kept following up.  It has required asking a lot of questions, meeting new people, and doing lots of research – more of which I still must do.  Although I have a pretty good grasp on the history of Africans in the U.S., those who were taken to the Caribbean and South America have diverging stories, both in enslavement and freedom.  So the history of Suriname is new to me – fascinating and new.

I have one primary point person at NiNsee who is working with me on the project.  Since the original proposal, she and I have met several times.  A few weeks ago we took a trip to the National Archives in the Hague, where we tried to figure out how the records related to former Dutch colonies are organized.  Although they have plenty of relevant records, primarily from Suriname, they’re not all organized so nicely.  But the staff is incredibly helpful – in spite of their obvious preference to speak Dutch.  We were able to ask lots of questions and gain some level of familiarity with their process.  And before we left, we found one of her ancestors that she had been hoping to learn more about on a Surinamese census.

In addition to the research side of it, I was worried about finding people to participate in the project.  I’m American and I’ve been here for only a few months.  I’m not necessarily well-positioned to find a unique group of black, Dutch genealogists.  But after making an announcement at a NiNsee event, and using some leads they already had, I managed to recruit a group of 8 people (it could be as many as 10).  They range in age from early 20s to 60.  And I’ve already heard some incredibly interesting family stories and a few mysteries to uncover.  In individual meetings with a few of the participants, they each have had their notes that always include partial names, scratched out dates, and question marks.  And they each speak about their families with a combined sense of enthusiasm and frustration.  Most have someone to ask questions.  But most often, that source has limited knowledge.  And the real knowledge holders are usually long gone, having never been asked enough of the right questions.

Although each participant has her and his own family to research, my goal is to remove some of the isolating feeling that can result from this type of project.  For this reason, I’ve pitched it as a group project.  NiNsee will be a resource, I’ll do whatever I can to help, and the group will offer support and inspiration, meeting every one or two months.  Folks will make progress and they’ll face barriers.  I’m hopeful the group will appreciate sharing in these various stages.

So Saturday was the kick-off.  Although the full group was not able to attend, I can see it’s the perfect group with which to launch this type of project.  Everyone shared some of their stories and I shared some tidbits about my family.  We had some interesting discussions about history and racial politics.  Catalogs were pulled out and folks looked for their family names.  And we could barely finish before everyone wanted to launch into break-out conversations with other members of the group.

Since the meeting, I’ve already received some updates about conversations members of the group have had with mothers, grandmothers, and aunts (fathers have demonstrated a trend as being the ones who speak the least about family…).

And so it begins!  Everyone seems excited.   I’m definitely excited.

Learning and Interning

You know that organization that I’ve mentioned a few times, NiNsee?  This may be an example of a crush turning into love.

NiNsee (pronounced nin-say) stands for Nationaal instituut Nederlands slavernijverleden en erfenis, which means the National institute for the study of Dutch slavery and its legacy.  Several months ago (before leaving the states), when I mentioned my interest in studying the significance of genealogy research for young people throughout the African diaspora, an academic adviser recommended I take a look at NiNsee’s work.  I looked them up, was impressed by what they were doing, and sent a blind email to them.  I figured it wouldn’t hurt.  And it didn’t hurt.  It also didn’t lead to anything.

A few weeks later, planning for my move, I learned what my address in Amsterdam would be.  So I did what probably 90 percent of you would do in this era of google that we live in – I looked up the street view of my apartment and most of the neighborhood.  I dropped the little google guy in various locations, just trying to get a sense of the area and what life was soon to be like.  On maybe the second or third drop the google guy was directly in front of NiNsee’s office.  I thought that was pretty crazy.  And since I believe in signs, I took it as one.

Months later, I walked through the neighborhood and found the office in person.  Although I knew it was close-by, I hadn’t thought about it in awhile.  So it was a pleasant find.  I thought about how perfect it would be to walk or ride my bike to the office in less than five minutes, walking in with some type of legitimate purpose for being there.

I took a few pictures of the building, which is quite lovely, including haunting images of African people in the windows.  The logo incorporates the Dutch monument for the history of slavery – which actually shares a history with NiNsee as they were a dual response from the government to the demands for an apology for Dutch history in the slave trade and slavery.  As a side note, I’m learning interesting things about the ongoing controversies related to these matters, which I’m looking forward to sharing when I can find the right words to use.

Maybe two weeks after that I introduced myself in one of my classes, including a brief babble about my research interests.  The professor lit up, saying, “I have to connect you with a woman I know at this great organization called NiNsee!”  My eyes kind of teared up.

Only two or three more weeks passed before I found myself in NiNsee’s office, chatting with one of their researchers.  She gave me a tour of the small museum, which shines a spotlight on slavery in Suriname, the largest Dutch colony, and the Antilles.  Many of the documents, images, and descriptions look similar to what I have seen in U.S. museums and libraries.  The power of this exhibit is in the fact that the history is familiar and well-documented, yet so widely unheard or ignored by Dutch people.  But it’s impossible to deny the evil history when you’re looking right at it.

Anyway, she introduced me to some folks in the office.  Everyone was incredibly pleasant and impressively smart.  As we began talking about my interest in genealogy, they shared with me the work that’s been done to document the names of all enslaved people at the time of abolition (former enslavers received compensation of 300 guilders per person for the loss of free labor – so they were pretty complete when documenting every single black person who was worth money).  And I learned that many black people in Amsterdam, primarily Surinamese, are beginning to seek the details of their family histories.  So before leaving, I set up a meeting with another researcher for the following week to discuss how I might be able to get involved with the genealogy side of things.

The following week, we brainstormed.  A proposal and yet another meeting later, we were basically making an internship official.  I still need to make some revisions to the proposal, and many of the details have yet to be decided.  But the gist of it is I’ll be putting together a user-friendly guide for people tracing black ancestry in the Netherlands (on the beginner level, of course).   The coolest part is we’ll identify 10-15 young people (though some may not be so young) in the community who are interested in developing their family trees.  I’ll work with them for six months or so, tracing their families as far back as we can go.  I have this image of the young researchers working with me, as well as supporting each other on their projects.  At the end of the core project, we’ll use the findings to put together some type of workshop for the general public.  Sounds pretty perfect, right?

On top of all of that loveliness, they mentioned wanting to figure out a way to get me to Suriname.  So another objective will be to find a way to fund a visit.  Apparently some really valuable things related to genealogy are happening in Suriname.  It’s a budding movement that has some folks applying for funding.  Only problem is the english grantwriting has been a challenge.  Oh but wait, I have grantwriting experience.  C’mon.  It’s a dreamy dream!

But I can’t pretend that something about this doesn’t scare me.  It’s like the universe is enthusiastically saying, “oh, this is what you want? well then heeeeeere ya go, my friend!”

Lights go out, curtain opens, spotlight shines, audience waits.  I stand there in full costume – not quite sure of the routine or what I’ve gotten myself into.  But the music is starting.  So I’m just going to dance and see what happens next…

Finding Family

As an extension of my genealogy research, I’ve been working on a video project, documenting the process of discovery that I’ve been on with my family this year. When my Mom and I traveled South in July, I took a Flip camera along to record various moments of the journey. Between the videos and documents found, I think it ends up being a pretty interesting story to tell. I’m calling the video “Finding Family.”

One aspect of documenting the story of discovering my family’s history that brings to light a frustrating barrier is our lack of family photos. Since I have no living grandparents, and neither of my parents were particularly nostalgic about holding onto old photos when they would have had access to them, we just don’t have many images of our ancestors. And when we started to think about who would have access to photos, as well as any other details about the family, we came up with some cousins who might be the key to what we’ve needed. Only problem is we don’t have relationships with these (or any) cousins – on either side of my family. Good news is this research project has not only introduced me to ancestors and their remarkable stories, it’s also been an excuse to find the living family. Family with photos, perhaps.

Well, the first new family I’ve found in this process actually found me. Using her ancestry.com account, she found that we have an ancestor in common. Our great grandfathers were brothers, meaning we have the same 2nd great grandfather – Calvin Strother. So she sent me a short email through ancestry, asking if I was indeed related to the Strothers, and if I might have more information about the family. I was so excited to hear from her. We quickly got into long email exchanges about our families and what we could piece together about the Strothers. I would happy-cry uncontrollably, looking at photos of my new cousin, her family, and the one photo she had of her great grandfather, James – my great grandfather’s brother.

James Strother - Sparta, Illinois c. 1925

I see an unexpected resemblance between him and my father.

Dad

 

She shared details she knew about our 2nd great grandmother and the date of her death, based on a letter her great grandfather received from one of the other brothers, asking for money to help with their mother’s burial costs. Perhaps my great grandfather received a similar letter.  I shared information I found about Calvin’s involvement in a controversial 1876 election in South Carolina. He and his brother were among the first black voters to begin voting democratic and faced tons of harassment as a result. Transcripts of their depositions in the trial that followed are fascinating. So anyway, my new cousin and I were so happy to have found each other. I’m looking forward to meeting her at some point.

 

1876 Deposition Transcript

And then there’s the white woman who received the surprise phone call from her black cousin. I described in an earlier post the discovery that my great grandfather’s white father has family still in Dawson, GA. My 2nd great grandfather and Kathy’s grandmother were siblings. Now since her grandmother never talked about her brother’s black family, cousin Kathy couldn’t give us much information or any photos of my great grandfather or his siblings. But we did leave Dawson with photos of my 3rd great grandparents.

 

Francis and Fanny Harper - 3rd greats

More recently, as I’ve been wrapping up the video project, I’ve gotten more and more frustrated by the complete lack of photos of my mother’s father. In spite of the fact that I knew him well and I was in college when he died, I don’t have access to one photo of him. So my mom and I decided she would reach out to a long lost cousin – her first cousin.

After my mom’s parents were divorced and she moved from Jacksonville to Philadelphia with her mother, she lost touch with much of her father’s family. But since her father and his father were brothers, and she knew him until she was about 9, we figured it wouldn’t hurt to write him a sincere, handwritten note (note to self: if you don’t want someone to write sincere, unsolicited, handwritten notes to you in the future, make sure you can’t be found on google).

Just a few days later, they were speaking on the phone for hours. And he was learning to use a scanner in order to begin sharing the many photos he has of my mother’s family, including my grandfather, great grandfather, great grandmother, and even my 2nd great grandfather (Thomas W. Long). Many of these photos will be of people I’ve never before seen. Fortunately, he described his mother (my grandfather’s sister-in-law) as a pack rat. The possibilities of what he will share are endless.

 

Long Family - sometime in the mid to late '50s.

To hold us over, he shared one incredible photo of my mother and uncle with my grandparents. This is the first photo I’ve ever seen of my mother at this age – same for my grandparents. Pop looks so cool and happy. Nana just looks lovely.

I think most people associate genealogy research only with making connections to the past – at least I used to. But I’m learning that it also creates opportunities to find family and connect in the present, making up for lost time…and lost photos.

Tips from an Amateur Genealogist

Although I started my family research only earlier this year, I quickly became obsessed with it.  I also achieved an unusual amount of success in a relatively short period of time.  It’s been such a powerful experience.  I highly recommend it for any/everyone.

A few people have asked me for tips on getting started with genealogy research.  I do not claim to be an expert by any means.  But I have learned a few things along the way that may be helpful to some folks.  So I figured I’d share.  And since I had lots of success by starting online, here are a few tips for starting online family research. (Note: keep in mind I have mostly black ancestors, which in many ways informs my approach to the research.)

1) Write down who/what you know:

  • Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandparent siblings, great grandparents, etc.
  • Full names (including middle names, if possible), birthdays, birth locations, death locations

2) Sign up for an ancestry.com account (they have a 14-day free trial)

  • Populate the family tree with what you know
  • Check out the hints they provide

3) Comb through these records:

Federal Census Records

  • The most recent published federal census is 1930
  • They go back in 10-year intervals (note: the 1890 census burned in a fire back in the day and, therefore, only exists in rare pieces. Don’t count on finding someone in 1890 using the federal census)
  • Go backwards – start by looking for your grandparents as children (knowing the date and place of their birth will help you find them on the census)
  • Keep in mind that only white ancestors will be found on the census prior to 1870, though free blacks should have been recorded in the northern states (I don’t have personal experience with this)
  • Each year they recorded different facts on the census.  Everything is useful, but pay careful attention to (and record) the following:
    • Names of parents, siblings, anyone else in the household
    • Birth location of individual and their parents (this is especially useful when looking for the parents of the oldest people in the household)
    • Ages/birth years (some census records will also provide the month of birth) – Note: ages and birth years are rarely precise and commonly change with each census – families frequently estimated birth dates
    • Some years the census will ask # years parents were married, providing year of marriage
    • Some of the later census records ask the household’s mother # of children born & # of children still living – compare this to who’s still in the household
    • Different spellings of names; are they using their middle names?
    • Address – at least get the city and county; later years will tell you the street name and house number (note: google the address – sometimes the street and even the house is still there)
    • Is the home Owned (“O”) or Rented (“R”)? – an owned home may give you access helpful property records
    • Literacy – who can read and write?
    • Occupation (confusion about whether a person is the same from one census to the next can sometimes be resolved by the occupation)

Federal Census Slave Schedules – 1860 and earlier

  • These records are not incredibly helpful. But if you have an idea of a slave owner’s name, and the approximate age of an enslaved ancestor, you may find these helpful.
  • They record the gender, age and race (black vs.mulatto) of black people – no names

State Census Records

  • Ancestry will pull state and federal censuses at the same time. State records are helpful because they could take place during the off years of the federal census (for example, Florida has an 1885 and 1935 census). They’re unpredictable. But take a look at what your states of interest recorded.

Marriage Licenses

  • Wife’s maiden name – this will allow you to search for a woman as a child, potentially leading to her parents
  • Date and location of marriage are important to record
  • Age at time of marriage

Death records

  • Social Security death index – with this, you have the social security #, which will help if requesting an actual death certificate from the county
  • Death Certificates – they provide lots of information, though they’re frequently not found online, and sometimes not fully completed
    • Look for: date of death, age, location and address, length of time in location, married/single/widowed, name of spouse, maiden name, name of parents

Military Records

  • WWI registration cards – ancestry has many of these.  If an ancestor would have been military age through 1918, it’s worth looking for a registration card.
    • Look for: age, physical description, address, occupation, single/married, date of registration
  • WWII registration cards – also found on ancestry
  • Civil War registration cards for Union and Confederacy also provide physical descriptions, locations, and ages. You’ll also get the name of the unit, which likely has been documented well enough to tell you the battles fought with a basic google search.

4) Some other helpful sites to try, using the information you already have:

5) Use Google – search in creative ways

  • last name, first name
  • “last name, first name”
  • “first name last name” + city, state and/or county
  • “first name last name” + birth year-death year
  • “first name last name” + occupation + location
  • any combination of the above

5) Don’t forget about siblings and spouses. They can lead to information about your direct line.  They also have interesting stories of their own.

6) Stay cool. It can be frustrating.

The Last of the Black Belt

My mom and I left the “black belt” on Sunday, driving from Jacksonville to Atlanta, then flying back to NYC, where my mom has stayed for another week before returning home to Chicago. I was so excited for this trip, anticipating an exciting hunt for new information and uncovered stories. I was also worried that my anticipation doomed me to disappointment. Thankfully, I was wrong about the dooming part. I think it’s safe to say the trip exceeded both my mom’s and my expectations. We now have new details and even some photos that add tremendously to our quest. I’ve shared a few stories in the last couple of posts. So I figured I would just sum up a few things before returning my attention for a bit back to Amsterdam.

The primary focus of the trip was on my mother’s family. Although my father’s mother had some roots in Jacksonville, we didn’t really uncover any new information about them while there. We did, however, drive by the site of my grandmother’s childhood home, which, along with many other parts of Jacksonville, looks eerily similar to the way it must have looked in the early 1900s. My maternal grandfather, Pop, has all of his roots in Florida, much of them in Jacksonville. The roots of my maternal grandmother, Nana, go from Georgia to Jacksonville. So our visits to Georgia and Florida benefited both of my mom’s parents.

Nana’s paternal grandparents: Lora Hardwick and George C. Harper. I feel like I’ve written endlessly about George C. Harper, the white guy from the wealthy family who had the long-lasting relationship with my 2nd great grandmother, Lora. George and Lora are just fascinating to me. Having read an article in Dawson, Georgia’s weekly newspaper, dated somewhere around 1880, about the evils of miscegenation and the hateful descriptions of the people who engaged in mixed relationships, I can’t begin to imagine their daily struggles as an illegal family. Now don’t get me wrong, black men who only date white women really annoy me. But evil and illegal? That’s taking it a bit far. I wonder what Lora and George looked like, what they talked about, and whether he willingly gave the black children his prominent last name, or if she forced him. Different parts of me want both scenarios to be true. I imagine Lora as quite strong and proud. Although she was “mulatto,” and her children were therefore a quarter black (although I haven’t yet seen his image, my great grandfather describes himself as having blue eyes), Lora raised all of her children to identify as black. Even more, each of the children went on to marry people with dark complexions, including my great grandmother. It may seem like a trivial coincidence. But at a time when black people were given incentive to shun their blackness whenever possible, I have the utmost respect for the pride and the unquestionable identification with black folks of the light-skinned family.

Mysterious Grave: Infant of Mr. & Mrs. G.C. Harper

But I digress with my black Harpers obsession. My point when bringing them up was to describe the mysterious grave of an infant. When visiting the graves of the white Harper family with cousin Kathy, she pointed out each headstone as if reciting a familiar roll call. But one headstone tripped her up: “The Infant of Mr. and Mrs. G.C. Harper, Died Feb.  2, 1904.” G.C. Harper is white George. And the youngest black child we know of was born in the late 1890s. Could there have been a later-born black Harper who died at birth? And would they have actually listed Lora as “Mrs. Harper” in cryptic fashion? George did later marry a white woman. But they didn’t have any children (this woman lists herself as giving birth to 0 children on the 1910 census). Kathy wasn’t sure who the grave belonged to. I don’t think she had ever noticed or paid much attention to it. But honestly, after spending the morning with her new black cousins, I’m not sure she was sure about anything anymore. After much thought and debate that lasted us until Jacksonville, mom and I agreed that the infant must have been a child born to George’s white wife. The timing just didn’t add up because we’re pretty sure Lora had died by 1904. Sad for George, his white wife, and the infant with no name. And really disappointing for us that we can’t claim a black baby snuck its way into the fancy white cemetery.

And one more thing about the Harpers. Along with photos of white George’s parents (my 3rd greats), published in a book we found a photo of the original Harper home. It’s super blurry, and difficult to see much detail. But as soon as we saw it, my mother said, “it looks like there’s someone standing on the porch.” You could make out vague figures. But beyond that, it wasn’t worth the eye strain. I scanned the photo after returning home. And after zooming in and perhaps incorporating some wishful thinking, I feel pretty certain I see an image of a black woman holding a white child, alongside other, less distinguishable figures. Lora’s mother, Julia (also my 3rd great) was the cook for the Harpers in the 1880s. And I know they commonly used the black servants to hold the white children in formal family photographs, as sort of invisible props. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Julia would be holding one of George’s younger siblings in this blurry image of the Harper family. Or I could be stretching. Either way.

The Harper House - do you see her?

Nana’s maternal grandparents: Rose and Jim Jackson. Rose (often referred to as Rosa, and also after whom my grandmother was named) and Jim Jackson have been big question marks throughout my research. I just haven’t been able to find either of them on census records as children. And other than a story my great grandmother told my mom as a child about her grandmother, Mary, attempting to escape slavery as a teenager and being caught by a dog, we haven’t had any information about either Rose’s or Jim’s parents. If the Mary story were even true, we didn’t know if she was Rose’s or Jim’s mother.

So when arriving in Georgia, I was hopeful that we could get even the slightest bit of information on the Jacksons. After an unsatisfying visit to the Dougherty County library, we came out with only one real piece of information that very well could have been about other people: a marriage index listing for a James Jackson and Rosa Phillips. The marriage date was several years after my great grandmother’s birthday, so I at first dismissed it. But my mother verified that she knew they were indeed married years after their children were born (the scandal!). Worth looking into, but beyond going to the courthouse, there was no way to be sure this record was for my ancestors.

A great great (grandparent) marriage

Fast forward to the Dougherty County Probate Court. They were able to pull the marriage certificate, which didn’t provide much more information than the index. But the trick was requesting each of their death certificates. Although death certificates are unpredictable with regards to the amount of information they include (it depends on how much the informant knew at the time of death), we were prepared to pay $25 for each certificate, if only for a hint of any new information. Not only did the nicest woman in Albany, GA return with two completely filled out death certificates, with all four of their parents listed, but she didn’t charge us a cent because we were requesting the information for genealogy research…”I’m not gonna charge ya for these copies.” Once I got over the emotion caused by her kindness, I teared up over the names of an entirely new generation of my great grandmother’s family – her grandparents! Jim Jackson was a junior, as his father was Jim Jackson, Sr. His mother was Mary Gilbert, which verifies the story about a Mary, and explains why my great grandmother’s brother’s name was Gilbert. Rose’s parents were Dinah and Martin Phillips, verifying that her maiden name was indeed Phillips and we had located the correct marriage certificate. And if these discoveries weren’t enough, we went back to the hotel to look at earlier census records, finding Jim Jackson as a child, living with his parents…and his grandfather, Miles Jackson! That makes Miles my 4th great grandfather. It’s almost too much, yet never enough.

Pop’s maternal grandparents: Laura and Alexander Brooks. Okay, these two still remain somewhat of a mystery. Although Pop’s father’s family has taken me to a Zulu ancestor, his mother’s family has been harder to trace. It was only earlier this year that I learned Laura and Alexander’s names after finding them on the census, living with my great grandmother who was a young girl at the time. Beyond that, I’m stuck. While in Jacksonville we were able to narrow down the years of each of their deaths by going through public directories and seeing when they were no longer listed. But then I couldn’t find either of them listed in the local death index. They died years apart, yet they are equally impossible to find.

I just have to keep trying.  What I have learned throughout this process is the information is there…somewhere…waiting to be found.  And the ancestors certainly want to be found.  Some details may just be a bit more difficult to uncover, perhaps a bit dusty, or maybe even lacking sufficient pixels to make anything out.  But trust that none of these challenges will stop me from digging.  Every day it becomes more and more important to give names to my ancestors, making sure they know their lives and their legacies have not been erased or forgotten.  I owe them at least that much.

Mysteries of the Black Belt Part 2

Yesterday’s high temperature in Albany, GA was 101 degrees. Today will be the same. Going between an air conditioned car, an air conditioned hotel, and air conditioned libraries makes it bearable. The luxuries of today didn’t exist for black folks one hundred years ago. On top of the countless adversities they faced that we frequently discuss, like deadly threats of racism, insurmountable economic challenges, and unequal access to health care, I can’t begin to imagine how they dealt with this heat.

In addition to the race, age, occupation, literacy, and a few other interesting facts, the 1910 federal census provided the street and house number for each family. Based on street maps of their addresses, we’re able to place every family member who participated in the census that year, which is actually most of them. So we assume that, living several blocks apart in 1910, my teenage great grandparents would have met somewhere between Madison and Flint Avenues in Albany, Georgia.

Since we’ve come to Georgia to learn more about who they were and what they experienced back in the day, it only made sense to plug the 1910 addresses into the 2010 GPS. And since Albany isn’t a very large city, we didn’t have to drive more than 5 minutes from the main library to arrive 100 years back in time.

House on Madison - where my great grandfather, George, lived in 1910

The homes that my ancestors lived in are no longer standing. However, what must be exact replicas remain across the street. George Harper, my great grandfather, lived with his older sister and her family on Madison Avenue. They were in a tiny, one-story home that may have only looked slightly less dilapidated and depressing then than they do now. One of the homes that still stands has a “Danger” sign on the front door, undoubtedly warning against the inhabitable nature of the structure. Sadly, we saw people living in similar homes just a few doors down.

House on Flint - where my great grandmother, Essie, lived in 1910

We drove down several blocks to Flint, where my great grandmother, Essie, lived at 14, and where her parents lived for the duration of their lives, and where my grandmother and her brother even lived for much of their childhoods. Tiny wood structures, which at one point had no running water or electricity, were homes to 5, 6, even 7 people. To be honest, I can’t begin to imagine how they did it, as I sometimes feel selfishly cramped in a one-bedroom apartment by myself. Living on top of one another in those homes…really, how did they deal with this heat?

***

Driving to the Dawson library to meet Kathy, the white cousin we discovered by phone the day before, I was quite nervous. We already know the black children of my white 2nd great grandfather, George, were not accepted by his family or neighbors in Dawson, GA, which is why they all moved to Albany and lived in poverty after their mother’s death. Although Kathy’s sentiments may be a far cry from those of her grandmother’s (George’s sister), my biased perceptions of the South made me fear she would feel exactly the same about the secret black family as they did in 1890.

Walking into the library, we had our eyes open for an older white woman with a furrowed brow. Instead, we were met with a smiley woman, waving at us, standing toward the back of the room. My mother and I shook her hand and we all walked toward the genealogy room, where we had done our research the day before. Kathy said what summed up all of our sentiments, “I just can’t wait to learn more!”

We shared facts, traded dates, and exchanged photocopies. She was riveted by the stories of the black side of the family, and the ways in which paths crossed with the ancestors she knew. Although her grandmother, aunts, and uncles never spoke of her mysterious Uncle George, his black lady-friend, or his black children, she had some interesting details that added to the puzzle of their mysterious lives. She described “small tenant homes” by the railroad tracks, about 100 yards from the main (mansion-type) house, which at one point were the only other homes on the property. That must have been where my 2nd great grandmother (Lora) lived when she began the affair with George. And perhaps even more interesting, Kathy’s aunt told her a story of a smaller house behind the main house that their mother “built for Uncle George.” George would have been in his twenties, and he had about five children. His mother may have been pissed at him for falling in love with a black woman, whose mother was her cook. But she cared enough for him to make sure they were taken care of, at least for the short term. We presume the children only left the decent arrangement after Lora died, and George moved on to marry a white woman.

Home built for the secret black family - circa 1885

After about an hour of story-sharing, Kathy took us on a driving tour of Dawson. We visited the graves of my 4th great grandparents and many other members of the family, as they all share an impressive lot in the cemetery. We saw the main family home, and where Kathy now lives across the street (her grandmother’s former home). We saw the railroad tracks, and where Lora’s small tenant house formerly stood. And we saw the larger house that was built for George and his secret family, which, by our Albany standards, was quite substantial for a black family at the time. Overall, in spite of a few awkward moments stemming from Kathy’s discussion of her former cook, Cookie, and her preference to be color-blind (she only has the best of intentions), we had a delightful afternoon in Dawson, GA with our new, white cousin.

Our family story just gets more and more colorful by the minute.