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 You can go along for months doing admin stuff, making sure historical documents are properly filed, adding newfound birth or death dates for distant aunts and uncles, trying to dig past some genealogical dead end to no avail; and then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.

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