Wednesday, April 9, 2008

My black history: More little gifts

This is Effie. She is my great-great-great-grandmother.

I have written before how researching family history can sometimes be tedious. You can go along for months doing admin stuff, making sure historical documents are properly filed, adding newfound birth or death dates for distant aunts and uncles, trying to dig past some genealogical dead end to no avail; and then you’ll receive some little gift: an e-mail from a long-lost cousin with a wealth of new information about the family tree, an off-hand comment from a relative that sheds light on a research mystery, a great-great-grandparent finally uncovered in a census under a misspelled name.

Recently, while cleaning out a drawer, my mother unearthed a handout from a family reunion. Last weekend she brought it to me. It’s just a thin, pamphlet of photocopied paper with “Tillotson Family Reunion, 1994, Oakland, California” printed on the front in a dated sans serif font. But, oh the information in those few pages! It is the perfect little gift.

The pamphlet confirms most of the relationships and important dates regarding my maternal grandmother’s family that I’ve been painstakingly piecing together over the past year. But the best part is a one-page collage of photographs of my Tillotson ancestors. I admit that I am obsessed with this piece of paper. I’ve been carrying it with me, looking at it from time to time, since Sunday. I sort of think that if I let go of it, it will disappear. I've been scanning the pictures thinking the faces might seem familiar--like family. I've been looking for the origins of the "Tillotson eyes" that many of my relatives and I have (small with an epicanthal fold). All those faces that I have been imagining as I go about researching my family story—they are real now and scattered about this piece of paper, some smiling, some in profile, some with spouses that I didn’t even know existed. In the center of it all is Effie—the family matriarch.

I don’t know Effie’s last name. I don’t know much about her at all. Those of you who have read my previous posts about family research know how I lament the way female ancestors become lost. In a time when women did not own land, did not get draft cards or go to war, and married early and gave away their surnames, it is sometimes hard to find documentation of their existence. Even family recollections often exclude women, focusing instead on patriarchs.

Until this weekend, I wasn’t even sure that Effie was named “Effie.” A relative still living in Christian County, Kentucky, where the Tillotson family is from, recalled her as “Essie or Effie or something like that.” I knew that Effie had at least one child, Emmitt, my great-great-grandfather, born in 1860. Curiously, Emmitt’s death certificate lists both his parents as “unknown.”

Family lore says Effie was Native American—Cherokee. I think I see a Native American face in the photo, maybe. If Effie was indeed an Indian, it adds a new wrinkle to the family story. She gave birth to an at least half-black child five years before Emancipation. Was Emmitt’s father a slave—maybe one of the Africans enslaved by the Cherokee Nation—or did he live among the tribe? Was Effie enslaved? Was Emmitt?

And where did the Tillotson name come from? I don’t remember my grandmother telling me much about her family, but one story has stuck in my head for years. We were in the family room of the house where I grew up. My grandmother was sitting on the couch and I was sprawled on the floor watching television. (I tell you, I remember this story and my grandmother telling it strangely well.) And my grandmother, apropos of nothing I can remember now, told me that one of our male ancestors (presumably a slave) once ran away from a farm with a particularly nasty overseer, who was prone to use the whip with little provocation. My ancestor allegedly found shelter at the home of a kind white woman, who gave him work and treated him well. This woman’s last name was Tillotson. And it was this name that my ancestor took as his own. I can’t help thinking that this story, the only detailed one my grandmother ever told me about her family or at least the only one that I remember, holds some key to Effie and her son Emmitt’s story. Is the ancestor who took the Tillotson name perhaps Effie’s husband? Emmitt’s father?

There is so much that I don’t know about Effie. But I have this photograph and now I know her face—another little gift.


NOLA radfem said...

Tami, isn't she beautiful! How thrilling!

I too love genealogy and have done a lot of work with it. I am a descendant of the Acadians (now known as the Cajuns), and lots of public work has been done in that area these last few years.

Yesterday, my husband surprised me by setting up a real office in what had been basically a junk room (the law school called at 7 Tuesday night and, with a few additions to my application - like get a copy of my driving record to prove I paid my stupid speeding ticket - it looks like they will be accepting me, so I definitely needed an office!). My genealogy stuff, which had been in boxes since we moved here 3 years ago, is all in actual file cabinets now! It's like Christmas! He also surprised me with the latest version of Family Tree Maker and then uploaded my old gedcoms into that.

Like you, I get messages from distant cousins from time to time. It's so exciting. We heard from some Irish relatives in Pennsylvania. In the early 1800s, four brothers left Ireland for America. There was some kind of falling out (apparently one said the other's wife was too bossy and that that was "just unnatural" - ahem!!!), and the brothers went their separate ways, some north, some south. Anyway, this northern descendant had the brothers' letters back and forth to Ireland and shared them all with us, including the one from their father that says, "I'm sorry to have to tell you, but your beloved mother is no more." It's dated 1832. A treasure!!

I've even discovered that my husband and I are eighth cousins (we have the same seventh great-grandmother, one of the first white settlers to Louisiana). Creepy, eh??? Hell, I think if you dig enough, we're all cousins, right?

Also, Democratic activist James Carville is my husband's fifth cousin (yeah, in Louisiana, we're REALLY all related)!

One thing I'm really interested in is this new DNA thing - doing genealogy by having some blood tests done and they can link you to relatively modern ancestors as well as narrow down which ancient tribes we came from. They aren't exactly sure what the tribes mean yet - like where - but they can trace specific tribes for sure. And the more of us that do this, the more it's going to help the research. It's $100. I told my husband it's what I want for Christmas.

Would you ever consider doing the DNA testing?

Yes, women are especially hard to trace. It seems I have a half dozen "Elizabeths" alone - no last names, just a bunch of Elizabeths! And I understand that Africa-American genealogy is so difficult too - obviously.

So many finds in genealogy are pure serendipity, like this one was for you. I once did some research at the LDS library in Salt Lake. I was researching my mother's family, with limited success. At the end of the second day, I went over to the building where they keep compiled histories (the first building was ORIGINAL documents, but this second building was books other people had already done on their families). I decided to go to the bathroom and then leave. On the way to the bathroom, I turned my head as I was passing the "W" section in the last row ("W" is the first letter of my maiden name) - and there was a two-part book on my father's entire clan going back to the 1600s, to an ancestor who was a tailor on some noble's land and whose will was written in Latin by the noble (the ancestor just put an X). And the book had the entire family, all the way down to my sisters and me!!! Of all things! I found a book with me in it - just by walking by.

In Jefferson Parish (a suburb of New Orleans), a relative of mine who is a volunteer on the library board just did battle with the new library director, whose vision of the library is 100 computer terminals, more fiction than non-fiction, getting rid of any non-fiction that hasn't been checked out for a while...basically, gutting the research component of the library and turning it into a Barnes and Noble with a bunch of computers. My aunt got the public and the newspaper and the parish council involved and got some concessions (after this idiot had thrown away 200,000 books). Anyway, one of the things he was trying to do was to dismantle the genealogy room and instead mix those items and other local history items in with the rest of the non-fiction. Any genealogist knows that is a disaster, precisely because of that serendipitous quality to the research. He claims it's a nationwide trend in public libraries, so it might be something to watch out for where you are.

Congrats again on your find. It really IS like Christmas!

P.S. Why do genealogists always die with a smile on their faces? Because they know they've managed to fill in another square on the family tree!

Anonymous said...

your post is quite timely. i was talking with one of my collegues at work and he was trying to pronounce my last name, which by itself is a challenging fit because it is kikuyu and it sounds different. i suggested that perhaps he use my nick name because it would be easier and he insisted it was important to learn my name because it was mine and not some slaver owners name. bless his heart. conversations like these and posts such as yours remind me how fortunate i am to know who i am and where my people are from. i second what nola said about getting a dna test, one of my clients this week asked me whether i was familiar with it. spencer wills has donr remarkable research in this field. what makes my heart sing is the recognition of names, faces, language worlds and other cultural artifacts from other parts of the world. we truly are one family.



Tami said...


What a sweet hubby! I'm trying to get my research in order, too. I've only been doing it for a year and haven't been as organized as I should.

I did the National Geographic test and recently had some additional genetic tests done.

I wrote about it here:

Except for the NG test, the genetic stuff is pricey, but I want to eventually 1) test additional markers of my DNA, 2) test to see if I can locate my matrilineal tribe, 3) do more autosomal testing to identify the different races in my genetic makeup (I have done some of this).

Jennifer said...

This is such a great post -- thanks for sharing your photo of Effie. I've always been envious of people doing genalogical research (my own family seems wholly uninterested and without their support--esp. since I don't speak Mandarin & Cantonese, it's impossible.

It's funny, isn't it--how much we are intrigued by the past--by roots? Good luck with the rest of your family roots hunting Tami!

bradski said...

This is fascinating. Looking at the faces of our ancestors who have long since past, is strange in that we can only imagine what their lives were like. What would they think of their descendants?

On a totally different subject, I would like to recommend a really cool web comic that tells the story of a young girl in 1930s Mississippi. It's a horror story in both the reality of life for African-Americans and in the fantastical.

Frankly, I'm amazed that DC Comics would publish something like "Bayou." Growing up, there were no fantasy stories that starred children of color in such roles.

I read recently that Jada & Will (Pinkett-)Smith's younger children will star in a fantasy movie. I think it will be the first such film centered around African-American children. Despite the despicable actions of Hillary & Bill Clinton and their minions (Mark Penn) and flying monkeys (Geraldine Ferraro) along with the usual demonic forces of hate featuring Pat "Slavery was a good thing!" Buchanan, the editorial board of the Wall Street "Journal" and the rest of the GOP Legion of Dooms, it's nice to see that not all of the light of hope has been crushed for a better, racially friendly 2008.

NOLA radfem said...

You just wrote about this - the DNA testing - back in February? I can't believe I missed it! Great stuff.

The organization of the genealogy research is so tricky. I don't really understand - do I file under individuals (which means marriage certificates, for example, overlap with a second individual), under entire branches (like the Irish part, the French part; then what happens when you get to the family where THEY intermarry, where do you file that...). Gives me a headache! I think there are books about how to do it. Apparently I need to find one!

Yes, my husband is trying so hard. There have been real "issues" over these 22 years (including infidelity) and since he obviously can't undo the past, he's just doing everything possible to try to make amends for all of the "young and dumb" years (we got married at 18 and 21). So, yeah, he's trying, trying, trying; he knows after law school, I might just walk.

Are you related to Oprah Winfrey?

I was at V-Day/the Vagina Monologues in the Superdome Saturday night, and I was excited about seeing Oprah perform, but she cancelled at the last minute. Eve Ensler said Oprah was really, really sick.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...