Saturday, February 12, 2011

The White Album (Black History Month - Part 1)

Even though we probably don't think of it very often, I'm sure most of us would agree that at least some of today's news derives from what was once news in the past, but we now choose to call it "history."

For example, a "new" military conflict turns out to be just a revival of an ancient war. The animosities and divisions have never been healed.

This month in America happens to be devoted to a study and appreciation of the life and times of African-Americans. I find this fertile soil for my thoughts and dreams as I reside in my Van Winkled state.

You see, there's much that happened back in the early days of America that affects every breath I take today whether I read the headlines or not...

Years ago, my grandmother on my father's side took all the faded sepia and black and white photos that had been stashed in an old trunk and shoe boxes and she pasted them onto photo album pages like this...

As I turn the pages I see men with squashed down hats, women in flouncy, long dresses, children with dirty knees and scissor cut hair.

As for these old ones' predecessors, I'm left to guess at their garb and dimensions because they inconveniently lived before the age of the camera. I assume I would see much the same thing as in my photo album, minus the occasional glimpse of a spindly Model T Ford in the background.

White faces. No black faces.

Page after page of just white faces, ...

There's a reason why it's worth remarking the absence of something in these pictures.

A long time ago, I encountered the hard documentary evidence. My family in long ago days owned slaves.

Over 150 years later I think it's necessary and just that I claim those black men, women and children as something more important than the chickens and mules and the dogs and cats that wandered in and out of the barnyard.

They were human beings who shared their lives with my ancestors. They were purchased and then expected to labor and in return they received food and broken down houses to live in and maybe some cast-off clothes.

In their forced degradation, they lived and died alongside my kin. I think that's enough to make them part of my family.

In 1976 my Great Uncle John went to the copy shop and placed on the glass the first page of over 100 carefully typed pages and genealogical charts he had composed in his retirement. When he was finished he mailed copies of the resulting comb-bound, cardboard cover document, entitled In Search of Roots, to my paternal grandparents and each of their siblings. I started reading my father's copy.

My great, great, great grandfather...
ready to go to war for the South.
No surprise, there were no heroes in our family line, no artists, no inventors, not even any sports stars. I was disappointed, but I had to admit that there wouldn't be such a thing as "average" in this world if most people didn't fit that mold. Our family certainly did.

The one thing my ancestors had in common was their Southern heritage. On my great grandmother's side, they were from Kentucky. On my great grandfather's side, the side that gave me my surname, the family locus was Smith County, Tennessee.

From 1861-1865 at least a half dozen men bearing my last name fought, and some of them died, for the Confederate States of America.

These ancestors of mine weren't fighting to hang onto their wealth and a privileged existence such as that of the Southern plantation owner. In my family all of the men had small farms and large families. And, as I learned to my dismay, they had slaves to help them get the work done.

This is when at light bulb illuminated for me: slavery was such a widespread way of life in the southern United States that one didn't have to be rich to own slaves. It was part of agrarian life. Just like you had buckets, wheel barrows, and shovels, you purchased some slaves and they helped work the land.

In the age before photography, newspapers printing engravings
of drawings that showed what a slave sale looked like.
One of the first pieces of paper that Great Uncle John found as he began to authenticate where the family was living before the Civil War was a bill of sale for a slave purchased in 1856. Who was this person who was bought and sold by my family? I don't know.

But as my great uncle engaged in further research he unearthed a paper trail of wills that offered up a treasure trove of names.

In 1845 in Smith County one of my ancestors bequeathed to his wife "the tract of land whereon I now live & the following negroes..."

Their names were...

James, Adam and Sisley.

The will continues in the very same sentence to blandly leave to the wife after these three human beings "two bedsteads and furniture and as much other household & kitchen furniture as may be necessary for her convenient support, also my Black mare and the Toney filly and as much of my stock of cattle, hogs, sheep, and farming tools as will be necessary for her to have."

In the eyes of the law, and my distant relations, James, Adam and Sisley were property, just like kitchen furniture and the hogs.

That noted, the will isn't finished yet with disposing of the slaves...

Item four offers a bequest to a grand daughter named Elizabeth of "my negro girl by the name of Mary."

Item six bequeaths to a son Henderson upon the death of his mother "my negro man James and woman Sisley & hur (sic) increase from this time."

Item seven bequeaths to a son Sanders "my negro boy Andy, and at the death of his mother my negro man Adam."

I'm getting depressed reading and thinking about this, but I'm not quite to the end yet.

In item eight daughter Frances is to receive "my negro girl Cinthy and I have a negro boy by the name of Hillard that is afflicted and if he gets well I wish him to remain in my family..."

In 1863, while the War Between the States raged on, the aforementioned Henderson who had received James and Sisley from his father, sat down and wrote his will in "a low state of health but in sound memory..."

After bequeathing 280 acres of land to his wife he added "all my Negroes (to wit) Gim, Sisley, Alexander, Suix, Em, and my interest in Harry the Blacksmith," then goes on in the same sentence to dispense "horses, cattle, hogs, sheep, household and kitchen furniture, and farming tools."

What names might have gone with these faces toiling in the field?

A slightly kinder picture emerges from the will written by a maternal ancestor living in Casey County, Kentucky in 1848.

She lists her slaves: Mary, Rose, Eliza, Hiram, Robert, Malinda, Reuben, Oliver, Mack, Barnett, James, John, Sampson, Mariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Sally, Francis and Josephine...and then she provides that after her death they be hired out for five years and then the heirs shall...

A new home for freed slaves?
"constitute a general fund for the benefit of all my slaves...and (they) and their increase are to be free upon the condition they remove to Africa...settling them in Liberia or any other African colony to which they may desire to emigrate and which will be be open for the Emigration of Free persons of Color."

Were Mary, Rose, Eliza, Hiram, Malinda, Reuben, Oliver, Mack, Barnett, James, John, Sampson, Mariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Sally, Francis and Josephine ever given their freedom? Did they make the long journey to Africa? If so, did they survive and thrive?

I don't know. It's a family mystery.

Yes, I'm sorry that my ancestors owned slaves and actually did so with free consciences because they honestly didn't believe people from Africa were fully human. But there's a bit more to be sorry for.

What happened after the Civil War when those slaves were freed was far from an automatic redress of past wrongs.

My father still remembers a succession of "colored" people who were in his life, including some who lived in a shack out at the edge of the farm. Supposedly they were now "free," but life remained adamantly hardscrabble. They helped out by performing chores, including hauling water from the well  a long distance to the farmhouse. They left when my father's father decided he ought to charge them some rent. The shack they were living in was turned into a chicken coop.

White Southerners at the time liked to point out bright spots in race relations. I suppose one came in the form of several black women who cared for my father when he was young. The first was Ida who actually wore a maid's uniform. He doesn't remember Ida, but he says somewhere there is a picture, now lost, of him and Ida sitting on the porch. How I wish I could have found that one spot of non-whiteness in our family album!

Then there was Susie Lacy. My father remembered her very well, including her husband with the unusual name of Clearview Lacey. Susie made such an impression on him that when my brothers and I were children, he took us back to the farm and drove around looking for something. Off a dirt road he eventually found an old, toothless black woman sitting on the porch of a stack of boards that was supposed to be a house. Yes, Susie remembered him. Wasn't that fine! He'd grown up and had sons of his own. My father gave her some silver dollars and kind words.

What else could he do? Progress in those days when Dr. King was just beginning his sit-ins and marches was slow. My father's father, a kindly Christian farmer, had only recently transitioned from saying the "n" word to "nig-ra." He couldn't quite get himself to say "Negro," though now and then he talked about the "colored folks." I'm sure he died without the word "African-American" ever coming out of his mouth.

Each generation is arguably less racist, but that cannot mend the past. There is no help for James, Adam, Sisley...Mary, Rose, Eliza, Hiram, Robert, Malinda, Reuben, Oliver, Mack, Barnett, James, John, Sampson, Mariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Sally, Francis and Josephine and all the others who crossed paths with my ancestors. They were falsely judged to be dumb and ignorant creatures by people who themselves were ignorant--in a way I can only hope will never happen again. - V.W.


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