Tuesday, February 2, 2010

From the vault: Celebrate Black History Month by researching your own black history

Last year (and the year before) on What Tami Said, I celebrated Black History Month by sharing my own family story and sharing how readers, too, could dig up their "roots." This year, I plan to do the same. I will rerun some of last year's posts (like the one below) and add to them.

Now, the first installment of My Black History. The post, which originally appeared in 2008, is called "Raising the Dead."

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I’ve been trying to raise the dead. With faded photographs, copied records, old death certificates, family hearsay and e-mails from long-lost cousins. I am an amateur family historian. And this is what I do.

Here is one rule of resurrection. It is easier to bring a dead man to life than a woman. The men—you find them in military records, land deeds, court records and prominent in the memories of their descendants. The women—they prove more elusive.

In a short biography of one family patriarch, William Staples, another family historian tells how, as a young boy, William was sold for a small sum of coins, how he grew to be “tall and strappingly built,” how he earned a reputation of being bold and courageous, how he served in the Civil War, how he crafted and sold baskets into his golden years. Of William’s wife Abbey, who worked alongside him and bore him 12 children, the biographer says only: “She was a good wife and mother, an excellent homemaker, a midwife and a quilt maker.”

But my foremothers mean the most to me. We are all women. History tells me that their lives were harder and much different than mine, but I wonder if any of our hopes, dreams and worries are the same. What part of them remains in me? Are my wide hips like Josephine’s? Am I tall like Lucinda? Am I independent like Violet? Do I walk like Maggie? So I dig, and with the scraps of their lives that I can find, try to assemble a woman. And I imagine my ancestors peering over my shoulder as I work, like ghosts waiting to materialize.

Here is what I know.

Josephine was born in 1893 in Christian County, Kentucky, to James and Alice Taylor. Folks called her “Josie.” Josie married a boy named Otho Tillotson, who lived with his family just down Bradshaw Road. I have a photograph of them together. Josie, beside her handsome, baby-faced husband, has full lips, a cloud of hair and deep-set, almond eyes. Josie had six children—just one girl, my grandmother, who she named Georgia Alice, after her mother and mother-in-law. She did not live to see those children grow to adulthood. Josephine Taylor Tillotson, my maternal great-grandmother, died of pyemia at age 30, just months after giving birth to her youngest son.

Lucinda Fortson was born into bondage in 1835. I don’t know to whom she belonged. It may have been W.H. Fortson, who owned a large plantation in Christian County and held some 30 slaves. Lucinda had at least three children. Only the last, my maternal great-great-grandmother, Georgia, was born free, in 1866. Georgia’s father was named Abe Holland. Were Abe and Lucinda ever allowed to marry? Was he sold to some far-flung plantation? Did the War take him? Or did he walk away? Whatever Lucinda’s relationship with Abe Holland, by 1870, he was gone, and Lucinda was living with her three children and working as a servant in the home of the Massey family. Like many former slaves, Lucinda could not read or write. The 1870 census taker left a perfect check in the 18th column next to Lucinda’s name, labeling her (and her eldest child) either “deaf and dumb, blind, insane or idiotic.” (Editor's note: Since I wrote this, I have come to notice that many African Americans are listed this way by Federal census takers in 1800s Kentucky. The mark seems to be more about racism than the physical or mental abilities of the person being enumerated.)

I found an old photograph of Violet’s master, Absalom Farrar Winfrey, sitting in front of his home in Poplar Creek, Mississippi. There, behind the grim, plain-faced plantation owner and his family, is Violet, her face in shadow, only her long, white dress visible, half-materialized in the doorway like a phantom. My paternal great-great-grandmother, Violet, was born in North Carolina, but soon separated from her family and shipped to Mississippi and servitude with the Winfrey family. In 1859, she married Constantine, who was also owned by the Winfreys. Violet and her husband served the family until emancipation came. Once free, and given a chance to choose a last name, Constantine chose “Winfrey.” Violet; however, seemed never to have a last name, or at least not one that was recorded. In some sources she is listed as “Violet A. Violet.” I like to think that made her doubly her own woman.

My paternal great-grandmother, Maggie, was born in 1881 in Mississippi. By 16, she was a wife and soon-to-be mother. Some records list Maggie as “black,” some “mulatto.” Her grandson, my father, remembers very little about her, except that she was “quiet and had pretty, grey eyes.”

I’ve been trying to raise the dead. Because I want my foremothers—Abbey, Josephine, Lucinda, Violet and Maggie—to live in the hearts and minds of their descendants. These women will never know the personal freedoms and successes that I enjoy, but they possessed courage that I can never imagine. They are courageous simply for being wives, mothers and black women in a time when their race and gender made them vulnerable fourth-class citizens. So I continue on with my faded photographs, copied records, old death certificates, family hearsay and e-mails from long-lost cousins. I am an amateur family historian. And this is what I do.
Image: Josephine Taylor Tillotson

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