Faithfully complicated archives

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve spent a lot of time with the team managing the archives of the Moravian church, also known as Evangelische Broeder Gemeente Suriname (E.B.G.S).  And this may be some evidence that differing belief systems need not stand in the way of best friendships.

The folks from the archives are working hard, providing a valuable service to the community.  They care about history and value its role, particularly in the lives of many Black Surinamese.  For those with ancestors who joined the Moravian church at some point in the generations since arriving in Suriname, the records can trace back quite far, making them a valuable and much-appreciated resource.   But none of us can deny that these records have some dirty roots.  And they’re associated with the German missionaries who had little or no perception of the humanity of their “saved” subjects.

My feelings about the church’s history are complicated.  Sure, they may have cosigned and perpetuated the enslavement of African people during the years of legal slavery, and maintained systems of mental slavery well after – such as through the marginalization, even criminalization, of traditional, African-influenced spiritual practices.  But those Christian missionaries kept some damn good notes.

EBGS Catalogue covering the area of Waterloo, Suriname, 1869-1890

Among enslaved converts, the records were copious.  Not only did they record the dates of baptisms and adopted Christian names, family relationships and physical descriptions were sometimes included.  For African people recently brought to Suriname, their ethnic group and area of origin were commonly recorded.   And they tracked pretty much every indiscretion of an individual that may have led to judgement or exclusion from the church.  For example, when someone attempted to escape from a plantation, the incident and the resulting punishment were recorded.  Or, every time a man (or woman) cheated on a committed partner, the occasion was written in the missionary’s notes, including names and the juicy details, in the better cases.  For although they accepted that enslaved couples could not marry legally, they expected the couples to live as close to Christian norms as the laws of Suriname would allow – like the 1 woman + 1 man rule.

So, assuming the notes are legible, and one speaks a fair amount of old German, missionary notes that pre-date the nineteenth century can provide some people with the information that so many of us just hope for.  A man who has adopted Christianity offers his African name and ethnic group of origin, along with the name of his committed, romantic partner, and his tendency to cheat with a woman from a neighboring plantation.  C’mon, that’s jackpot.

In the decades following legal slavery in Suriname, the church continued to maintain detailed records and track the lives of its followers.  And since families often stayed close-by, in the same areas for generations, they can be relatively easy to trace.  Details of births, baptisms, (now legal) marriages, and deaths can be found in these gigantic, stereotypical-looking, old books.  And because they’re frequently mentioned in comparison, I assume some of the other local churches, such as the Roman Catholics, maintain a similar level of abundance and detail in their records.  So, all things ugly still considered, I enthusiastically recommend church records to anyone who’s looking.

The notes are cold and matter-of-fact. They depict harsh realities and blurred perspectives of decency. And, most often, they turn my stomach.  But, if I could, I would read them like a Toni Morrison novel.

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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.

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.