Thursday, February 12, 2009

My Black History: More "little gifts"

Originally posted in April 2008

My great-grandparents, Mattie and Jake, and their children. My grandfather is third from the right.

I have written before (here and here and here) about how genealogy can be a hard, boring slog, after the first few months of discovery. What keeps me going are the little gifts I receive--surprise calls from long lost cousins, a hidden name on a census that reveals an answer to a family mystery, a fading photo of an ancestor found on a Web site, etc.

Last weekend, I got a huge gift. My cousin Barbara, who has moved to the family's ancestral home, and her family, came to visit, and brought with her a treasure trove of information about my mother's paternal grandparents. Until last Saturday, I had never seen my Great-grandmother Mattie and Great-Grandpapa Jake. They were just names, bits of old stories my mother used to tell. Now they are real. I know now how much my beloved Gramps looked like his father. And I know how my great-uncles and aunts looked at my age. It was a wonderful experience and I am grateful that my cousin shared these heirlooms with me.

As I have explored my family history, it is the women that fascinate me most. I guess because I identify with them and because I lament how history erases them. My male ancestors--I can kind of make them come to life with draft registrations, military records, land deeds and such. Women--at least in the early 20th century--can rarely be found in those documents. What's worse, their names change. Sometimes Jane Doe becomes Jane Jenkins and you can never find her again. (Another reason for women to hang on to their "maiden" names.)

So, I was especially excited to see my great-grandmother and to learn a little about her, like that she was a writer--a prolific poet. How a black woman finds time to raise 10 children on a farm in the Deep South in the early 1900s, and also write poetry, I don't know. (I can't even find time to clean the living room.) But I am glad that she stole time to do this, and I think it tells me a little about her. Her poetry reveals much, too. It is filled with humor, lessons that she must have taught her children, and honor for her God and his creations.

Great-grandmother Mattie was very "grrrl power." This poem makes me chuckle.

Adam in the Garden

God gave to the first man, Adam, a beautiful place to live.
And for his comfort and pleasure, a woman he did give.
At first they both were happy, as husband and wife should be,
until they ate the forbidden fruit that grew on a certain tree.

They were walking through the shrubs and flowers, their Lord they did a-spy.
They wrapped some leaves around them and quickly tried to hide.
But God called out, "Oh, Adam! Have you eaten of this tree?"
Adam said, "Lord, this woman bit the fruit and passed it on to me."

Adam stood right there in the garden, wrapped up in all those leaves,
knowing that God gave him the law, yet put it all on Eve.
So wives, you may as well toughen up; you needn't fret or stew.
Your husbands will always break the law and put all the blame on you.

Creative Commons License
Adam in the Garden by Mattie Rivers Millender is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

And this is my favorite, because these are words needed more now than when they were first written.

When the Curtains are Lowered

When the curtains are lowered and the chapter is closed
on the life that you have lived.
I wonder how the case will be with you
who never had nothing to give.

Who never gave a penny
to help those in distress.
Who never bore a burden
that the weak and faint might rest.

Who never gave a piece of bread
to the beggar at your door,
forgetting the fact that the Bible says
you must reap just what you sow.

Who turned your back on the outcast
refusing aid to give.
When just a little kindness
would have helped him a better life to live.

Who never had time to visit the sick,
"Too busy!" you'd always say.
Too busy to visit a dying friend
and bow with him to pray.

Who never helped a neighbor
when he was out and down.
Yet hoping in the great beyond
to have stars adorn your crown.

Who heeded not the widow's cry
in her hour of dark despair.
When orphan children were crying for bread,
you knew not, neither cared.

Perhaps, there's one who suffered and died
who lived just across the street,
whom you could have given a load a bread,
a glass of milk, or piece of meat.

Oh, yes! You always planned to help,
but just kept putting it off,
'Til death relieved the suffering,
then, or course, the chance was lost.

When you were asked for a little donation
to help on the foreign field,
you needed your money for your own use,
so you turned down the needy appeal.

You, who talk of religion while
the people around you live it,
you'll admit that God's cause needs money,
but let the other follow give it.

You can talk about the pearly gates,
but you cannot enter in,
if you fail to serve your maker
by serving your fellow men.

Will God, the Father, welcome you
in that eternal home,
or will he bid your soul to hell
and never more to roam.

What excuse will you render at the judgement bar
when these things are brought before you?
When you are face to face with the many things,
the things you failed to do.

It's not the value of the gift you give,
but in the spirit in which you give it.
It's not the length of the life that you live,
but in the manner in which you live it.

When the curtains are lowered and the chapter is closed
on the life that you have lived,
I wonder how the case will be with you
who never had nothing to give.

Creative Commons License
When the Curtains are Lowered by Mattie Rivers Millender is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

I am but one of Mattie's descendants who loves to write. My love of writing, and any skill that I have at it, comes from my mother. My uncle (my mother's brother) is an excellent and creative writer. As are my aunt (my mother's sister) and her daughter, my cousin. And I can't imagine that there aren't more poets and writers among Mattie's many descendants. Maybe she is our ancestral muse. Perhaps she lit the creative flame that drives us all.


bittersweet said...

Beautiful. Thanks for this. Just beautiful.

MacDaddy said...

Beautiful story. And I love those old photos.

quarter-life-crisis said...

I am interested in researching my family tree. Both sides. I have very interesting last names (Mom- Cyprain or Cyprian and Dad - Jacque). Being that I am from Louisiana, I think I can get some great facts about them!

What is your suggestion on how to start? I tried to talk to my older relatives, but they were little help. On each side (Mom - Mom/Dad and Dad - Mom/Dad) I have names up to my great, great, great grandparents.

So now that I have names, what is the next step?

Tami said...

Quarter-Life Crisis,

First I would jot down a loose family tree listing all the relatives you know for as far back as you know. Don't forget to list family members that are not your direct ancestors (i.e. your parents' sisters and brothers; your grandparents' sisters and brothers)--knowing those names may help you when you least expect it. Also note all of the birthdates and locations that you know.

You would be surprised at how much info you can get online today. You can't do ALL of your research online, but sometimes the little surprises that you can find quickly there will spur you on to more in-depth research.

The mother of all family research Web sites is You can go to that site and review census records, military records, vital records, etc. Note that these aren't necessarily current records. For instance, the most recent census that is available to the public is the 1930 census, so while you may not find your mom or dad in the census. You may find your grandparents or great-grandparents. Type in as much info as you know about your grandmother (for instance): Jane Doe, born 1936 in Metarie, Louisiana, African American. Ancestry will pull up all records related to that person. This is where is helps to know brothers and sisters. There may be several Jane Doe's in Metarie, but only one with a brother named Ezekiel, and you know the your great-uncles name is Zeke. Pouring through these records can help you navigate back further. Your grandmother may be a child in the 1930 census, so you will learn her parents' names, when they were born and where from that record. Then you can search in earlier census records for their parents and so on until 1870. After that, it gets harder, but not impossible, to trace African Americans. Don't overlook death and birth records (also available on Ancestry). I couldn't find my great-grandmother's parents' names until I ordered her death certificate for about $15 from That document listed her parents' names and helped me continue my research.

There is a fee to use Ancestry, but many libraries offer free access. There are also free family research sites online (none as comprehensive and easy to navigate). is free and connected to the Mormon Church which holds tons of genealogy records. Also try and "Black Roots" by Tony Burroughs is a must-have for African-American researchers.


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