Why I don’t celebrate the 4th of July

Although the United States of America became an independent nation in 1776, those “freed” Americans continued to enslave my ancestors for nearly 100 more years.

slavery

While I see the Declaration of Independence as irrelevant to me and my history, several measures were passed between 1776 and 1865 (when the Civil War concluded) that did have a bearing on the lives of my ancestors.

12th of July 1787 – Three-fifths Compromise

In 1787, 11 years after US independence, Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved James Madison’s recommendation for determining a state’s representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although northerners believed enslaved Black people should be regarded as property, warranting no representation in Congress, southerners argued that Black people enslaved in their states should be counted along with the whites (in an effort to increase southern representation rather than an acknowledgement of a Black person’s humanity).

three fifths a man

The “Three-fifths Compromise” clause allowed a state to count three fifths of each Black person in determining political representation in the House. In political effect, a Black person was equal to three fifths of a white person.

This is a cross-post from my Ancestors unKnown blog. Visit Ancestors Blogging for the complete post.

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A nomad with roots: calling all expats to research the past

Replanting your roots shouldn’t mean losing them

In March 1920, my grandmother lived with her parents and siblings in Jacksonville, FL. They shared a home with the parents and younger brother of A. Philip Randolph. She was attending Boylan-Haven School for Girls, a private school for Black girls that Zora Neale Hurston attended about 20 years earlier (and coincidentally my Mom would attend years later). She had just turned 12. Her mother had just died.

Her mother’s death was most likely a significant factor, but not the only reason for her father’s difficult decision to migrate north – just a few years before his own death in 1926. My grandmother and her family left behind the remarkable life they established in Jacksonville and moved to Philadelphia, PA.

Florida East Coast Railway station - Fort Pierce.Photo courtesy:  State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/798

Florida East Coast Railway station – Fort Pierce. Photo courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/798

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Your family tree is waiting

And it might be getting impatient. Now is the time!

Lost histories and forgotten ancestors just shouldn’t be a thing. So I’m in the business of getting family trees started. Check out the new pages of Black  Girl Gone, Seeking Ancestors, to learn about my family history research services. And once you’re ready for some answers of your own, let’s get started on your family tree.

Special offer for Black Girl Gone readers! 
Blog subscribers: receive a 10% discount if you submit a research request before August 31, 2014

Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road
Sullivan’s Island, SC
http://www.tonimorrisonsociety.org/bench.html

Also, I remain committed to the powerful benefits of genealogy for young people with my nonprofit, Ancestors unKnown. (Stay tuned for an exciting reboot over there that’s coming soon.)

 

 

Pro: Freedom to roam

I complained in my last post about not having a stable place to live.  Well, technically I’m still homeless.  And I stand by my complaints.  But sometimes the bright side of a bad situation turns out to be the point of it all.  In this case, once I was able to recognize that bright side, I realized it’s what I’ve been wanting all along: freedom.

Stability would be cool.  Eventually I want to have all of my stuff in one place.  And I’d like to eliminate that uncertain pause when people ask me where I live.  But in the meantime, what have I been complaining about?  This is the perfect time to take advantage of my life with no leash.  As you may know, I thrive on opportunities to pick up and go wherever, whenever.  So I trashed that rising anxiety and purchased another plane ticket.

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Introducing Ancestors unKnown

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dames en Heren, I’m proud to introduce you to my brand new organization, Ancestors unKnown.

Ancestors unKnown introduces young people in the African Diaspora to new perspectives on their histories. We combine a Black history-based curriculum with genealogy/family history research, working in partnership with local organizations, historians, and genealogists.  Beginning in the U.S. (South Carolina) and Suriname, Ancestors unKnown is an international organization.  So in the years to come, I hope to introduce our work and serve communities on multiple continents and islands.

This is still the pilot stage. I want to make lots of changes and additions to the website. And there is so very much work to be done just to stay on track.  But I figure it’s about time to let folks in on the adventure in less cryptic ways.

ancestors blogging

Now I have a few things to ask of you:

1) Check out my first entry on Ancestors Blogging (which eventually will include posts from student participants and partners). Comments are also great!  Here is a piece (I feel like I cheated on this blog by writing over there – so this copy/paste action is how I rectify that):

…could a family that survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade and generations of slavery in the Americas really have left behind no memories? No stories to tell? No lessons to instill? I believe this to be an assumption worth challenging.  And sure enough, digging into some archives revealed tremendous stories waiting to be told, and remarkable ancestors who deserve to be remembered.  I believe everyone has a right to this empowered feeling of knowing her own history, or at least part of it.

2) Please head over to facebook to like the page: https://www.facebook.com/AncestorsUnknown

3) Please share the work we’re doing with your networks. The more people we can invite to the party, the better. (but wait, just so you know, there’s no real party.)

3.5) Eventually I’ll figure out the Twitter thing.  So I’ll be asking you to follow me there at some point too.

4) After all of that, tell me what you think.  Critical feedback is always appreciated.

Sheesh. Feels like I just walked outside wearing my brand new big-girl-pants. But the big ‘ole automatically-locking door just shut behind me.  And I may or may not have forgotten my key.

Big-girl-pants, don’t fail me now. There’s no turning back!

A new audience

For the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t unhappy to be somewhere at 9 a.m. on a Saturday.  Believe it or not, I was even early.  At the National Archives of Suriname, I was meeting the participants in the local genealogy project for the first time.

When I was in Suriname last year, I developed the project in partnership with two organizations: Naks, well-known for its education and celebration of Afro-Surinamese cultural heritage, and Evangelische Broeder Gemeente in Suriname (EBGS), responsible for the archives of Suriname’s Moravian Church.  Both groups are invested in history, ancestors, education, and young people.  And each group has its own youth audience. So it made sense to approach them with the idea of introducing genealogy research to a new audience of Afro-Surinamese young people, combining the extensive archives of EBGS and the historical knowledge of Naks.  

Although logical, the plan wasn’t without concerns.  Mainly, the two groups don’t typically work together.  The church group is typically opposed to the African history side of things, choosing the teachings of the missionaries in their approach to education, perpetuating beliefs that  African ancestors = non-Christian =  bad (I’m going to do my best to stay neutral here, since these are my friends).  Since Naks openly celebrates traditions that are rooted in African heritage, they have a tendency to rub the Christians the wrong way. You know, with the voodoo and all.

But both groups assured me this would be a perfect opportunity for a bridge to mend an arbitrary divide.  If young people from Naks and EBGS could come together to learn about a common Surinamese history, while identifying their ancestors and where they come from, a step could be made in a new direction.  Everyone (well, at least the decision makers) was on-board to cooperate and experiment with the new partnership.

My other concern had nothing to do with Suriname, but young people everywhere.  I wasn’t so sure the passion for genealogy research would translate for a non-retiree audience.  I pictured teenagers losing their eyesight from deeply-committed eye-rolls, incapable of seeing documents that were not produced by and/or for their phones. And I feared history and ancestors would be rejected by a forward-thinking generation.  My insecurities had me convinced I was too idealistic in thinking young lives could be impacted and changed through knowledge of the past.  But again, Naks and EBGS assured me their young people would get it.  They assured me it would work.

So in spite of my unplanned return to Amsterdam, planning for the project continued. Thirteen participants were identified for a pilot run of the project, 5 from Naks and 8 from EBGS.  They kicked-off with a special event back in November.  And the bi-monthly sessions began in January, alternating between genealogy research with EBGS and Surinamese cultural heritage workshops with Naks.  I had been receiving updates and general assurances that things were “going well.”  But I still wondered if they were just keeping secret the fact that the young people were bored to tears – that is, when they weren’t sparring with crucifixes and voodoo dolls.

Now that I’m back in Suriname, Saturday was my first opportunity to see it firsthand – see my idea come to life, see it actually working.  So I woke up early.

Not all of the participants were there, 3 or 4 were missing, I think.  And not all of them are young, with ages ranging from late teens to early 30s.  But that didn’t matter even a little bit (at least they were under 70, right?).  I couldn’t have been happier to see them.

To begin the research process, they had already spoken with their families, arriving at this session with hand-written notes on their family trees.  They introduced themselves and explained their interest in their ancestry, and why they wanted to know where they came from (most of this was in Dutch –  I did my best to follow).  They listened intently to the brief lecture/explanation from the Archives staff.  They welcomed me and my brief introduction with smiles (and embarrassing applause).  They broke into groups and helped each other comb through the census archives.  They chatted with me and answered my random questions enthusiastically.  They took vigorous notes.  They even went over time and continued to research.  And although I was looking at them carefully, I didn’t see one yawn or eye-roll.  They actually seemed interested. And when the session ended, they planned to return on their own time to continue researching.

It was like a dream come true.  Beyond the empowerment of these young people to do their own research and learn the value of their own histories, I was excited for their ancestors. Finally recognized.  Finally going to be known.

Gosh, I cried a little when I got home.

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.