Thursday, February 7, 2008

My Black History: Little Gifts II

Last week I told you about my work as an amateur family researcher and I talked about the joy of discovering new nuggets of information about my history--"little gifts" I called them. The following story about William Staples, one of my paternal great-great-grandfathers, was sent to me by a newfound cousin. I suspect it contains some hyperbole, but it provides an interesting glimpse into the life of one of my ancestors.

Somewhere in the state of Kentucky, a young boy slave was sold for a small sum of coins. This boy was so young that if he was given a name as a baby, he didn't remember it. One thing he did remember; however, were the whipping of other slaves on certain days of the week. Although he didn't know one day from another, he believed the "whipping days" occurred on Sundays or Mondays. When the whipping days would come, this young boy was smart enough to run off into woods. For protection against both nature and man, he would take a double-edge axe along with him.

The boy, later named William Staples, was not a coward--nor was he a violent person. However, his taking the axe into the woods led people to believe that he was a crazy man. They thought this because when they would find him, he would threaten to kill them while demanding that they give them respect. This, in itself, was a courageous act. Who'd ever heard of a slave demanding respect. Largely because of his threats and demand for respect, he was never whipped, and ultimately his capturers let him go because he showed courage and strength.

There is no record of how or why William left Kentucky nor when he married Miss Abbey. We do know that he served in the Civil War after he became a free man and moved from Winona to Drew, Mississippi, in 1913.

The union of William and Abbey produced 12 children: seven sons: William, Warren, John, Jim, George, Joe and Matt; and five daughters daughters: Mary, Ella, Georgina, Kate and Alice.
Some of their children remember their father being a tall man in statue and strappingly built . He kept himself busy making and selling baskets up into his golden years. As previously mentioned, William Staples was known as a man of courage and promoter of peace. He lived by his motto, "Never kill a man, unless you have to." He would remove himself from pending trouble because he felt that humans lived a short time anyway and would die soon enough.
Memories of Miss Abbey are sweet and notable. She was a good wife and mother, an excellent homemaker, a midwife and a quilt maker.

William and Abbey loved their children and grandchildren. After the death of their daughter, Kate, sometime in 1919, they openly received and welcomed Kate's children into their home. William often shared with them, and many of his other grandchildren, stories of his life as a slave.

The offspring of William and Abbey lived in Drew, Mississippi, until 1929, when many of them moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi. From there, they moved to various cities across the United States.

William and Abbey Staples were religious people. They served God as AME Methodists. The roots of our family continue to symbolize our character and personality today. (From the memory of Lester Staples, Sr.)

Note: We owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Homer Trotter of Mound Bayou, Miss., who knew William well, and to Cicero Satterfield, for tracing our roots to the Archives of Washington, D.C. 17 years ago.

Want to learn more about your family's history?

Last week I told you that the first step in genealogy is to talk to relatives and gather and organize all the fact and stories you can. After you have taken this step, you are ready to dive into public records. You will be surprised at the wealth of information that can be found online.

For instance, you can find census records for nearly every year up to 1930. You won't find 1890 because those records burned in a Washington fire. And you won't find African Americans listed in census records before 1870. But census records are a key starting point for family research. A census can tell you your ancestor's race, age, gender, birthplace, occupation, and (after 1880) their relationship to the head of the household. It can also tell you who an early ancestor's neighbors were, whether your ancestor could read or, in some cases, whether he or she had a physical or mental affliction.

You can access the census and other public records at:
Family Search (free)

Get help with African American family research at:
The Root

Also, visit The Root and read what Maya Angelou discovered about her great-grandmother, Kentucky Shannon.

One last thing...several people have written and said that family research is hopeless for them--either their family immigrated from another country or they only have the barest of information about their extended relatives. Please don't let that stop you. Ancestry alone has immigration records, census records from other countries and a host of helpful information. And even if you don't have a wealth of information, you can still make strides in piecing together your family history. When I began researching, I had only my maternal great-grandmothers' names and little else. Today, with help from others and a little sleuthing, I can follow both women's families back to before emancipation. You just have to try.

Stop by Mamalicious for "32 Days of Black History."

I believe in ghosts

I've got serious issue fatigue. That's why I didn't post yesterday. I spent all day reading the post Super Tuesday analysis and frankly I'm spent. I can't bring myself to write about racism or sexism or the economy or super delegates or the media. I just can't.

I can't even bring myself to read about weighty issues. I stayed off the computer last night. No Salon. No Politico. No Huffington Post. No New York Times. I didn't even surf over to my favorite blogs. Instead, I crawled into bed with a magazine to watch "Ghost Hunters International" on the Sci Fi Channel--a cheesetastic, guilty pleasure.

I am fascinated by things that go bump in the night--not hockey mask wearing maniacs or glassy-eyed aliens, but spooks and specters. I love a good ghost story, especially local legends: Resurrection Mary who roams Archer Ave. southwest of Chicago, the chilling tale of the LaLaurie house in News Orleans' French Quarter, or the Grey Lady of Evansville, Indiana's Willard Library. Want to know the hidden history of a place? Take a local ghost tour. New Orleans and Chicago offer great ones.

To me, the best kind of ghost story is a true one. Forget Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King, I like to hear about real people's encounters with the supernatural.

Once, my most straight-laced, no-nonsense friend told me about a haunted house she and her family lived in when she was small. Her voice caught in her throat as she explained that once, while lying in bed, she clearly saw a little girl standing in the hallway. Thinking it was her sister, my friend called out. "What," her sister answered from a twin bed in the same room. Another time, my friend, her sister and brother, while home alone, saw what looked like a figure in red descending the stairs. Things also tended to disappear in that house; nothing ever seemed to be where you left it. My friend's family moved after little more than a year.

I got a chill just typing that story.

The only thing I know for sure about the other side is that none of us know for sure what happens there. I imagine the truth is more spectacular than anything we've dreamt up. Today, with all our knowledge and technology, we tend to think we have it all figured out. We understand it all. For me, a good real-life ghost story provides a rip in that certainty. It suggests that some things still are unexplained. It says that in this vast and wonderful universe, human beings only know a fraction of what there is to know.

For some reason I find that comforting. So I believe in ghosts.

What about you? Have you had any encounters with the supernatural? Do you believe in ghosts? Or, are you as politics and big issue fatigued and I am?

Photo: Famous ghost photo from Chicago's allagedly haunted Bachelor's Grove Cemetery

"The photo was taken on infra-red film during a daytime excursion to the reputedly haunted graveyard. In the developed photograph, there appeared a semi-transparent figure of a woman seated on a tombstone within the cemetery grounds. She was not visible to anyone who was present and in fact, the image appeared in a much larger, almost panoramic view of the cemetery. The portion of the photo where the woman appears was enlarged when investigators noticed there was something out of the ordinary about it." SOURCE


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