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.

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!