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Monday Madness: Ancestral Property Found, Lost & Found Again

Ever since my cousin, Monique and I returned from our trip down to Ocean Springs, Mississippi to do some ancestry research, I’ve been thinking about all the property my ancestors accumulated and then lost.

It was a source of inspiration to me that my great, great-grandmother, Tempy Burton who had been a slave and could not read or write purchased an acre of land in Ocean Springs, Mississippi in 1887.  It never even occurred to us that she had owned her own property.  We always assumed that she lived with her former masters, Col. W.R. Stuart and his wife, Elizabeth McCauley Stuart after she was emancipated until she died in 1925 at the age of 104.  Indeed, Tempy was listed living with Elizabeth on the 1900 census.  But turns out she bought property of her own. The way we found what was known as “Tempy Burton’s Lot” in the Jackson County Archives was as surprising as the fact that she was a homeowner.

Archive Assistant, Linda Cooper was helping me look through the massive deed books for Josephine Ford’s property.  (The books are so big, Linda needed another person to hold the book whenever she made a copy of a page).   Monique was trying to keep her mind off her hunger (it was about 3 or 4 in the afternoon and we hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet) so she was randomly browsing through indexes, looking for any familiar names. That’s when she yelled to me from across the office.  She’d found Tempy Burton in an index for land owners in 1889.

With a trip to the Jackson County Chancery Court office around the corner from the Archives, we found that Tempy paid $60 for her acre of property. (Deed Book 9, p. 395)  She would later convey some of this land to my great-grandmother, Josephine and another daughter, Violet Matthews Battle for a dollar each.(Deed Book 45, p. 304 & 305)   Not only was Tempy a landowner, but she made sure her daughters were too.  As we continued digging through the land rolls in the Jackson County Archives, we found that all of these properties were lost to tax debt decades later.  It bummed me out that a later generation of my family had lost something so precious, land acquired by their slave ancestor.

Driving around town earlier in the day, we’d come across a lot owned by Monique’s great-grandmother, Tempy Elizabeth Stuart.  The lot was for sale. At the time, we didn’t know about Tempy’s lot and how her younger generations had lost it.  Can’t help but wonder if it’s still for sale…

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An Oral Tradition

My Grandma Louise told me her stories while we swam on Hilton Head Island

My Grandma Louise told me her stories while we swam on Hilton Head Island

When I read the New York Times article last week about Michelle Obama’s ancestry, the fact that her family lore had suspected a white relative for years underscored the importance of gathering oral history.  For blacks, the paper trail often runs cold since many slave births and deaths weren’t documented.  Even my grandmother, born in 1910 never had a birth certificate.  This was the case for many poor  people (not just blacks) as well as those born in very rural areas around the turn of the century.

It’s easy for family history in general, but the history of African Americans in particular to die with our ancestors. That’s why I’m  so grateful for all the story tellers in my life like my grandfather Martin Ford, and my grandmothers, Lillie Mae Ford and Louise Coleman Walton.  When Martin and Lillie Mae were alive, they were generous with their stories of their lives in segregated Mississippi and Louisiana, and Louise at 93 continues to regale me with her tales of picking cotton and potatoes as a sharecropper, first in Oklahoma and then in California often with my mother, then just a baby in tow.

I’ve inherited my grandparents’ storytelling genes  and for the next two weeks, I have the privilege of spending uninterrupted time spinning tales at a beautiful hilltop artist’s colony in Amherst Virginia. While I’m here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I hope to work on a fictionalized version of my maternal grandparents’ adventures.  (No one would believe the true stories).  So, I’ll turn this story over to  my fourth cousin, Monique and let her tell you how we found each other in our parallel quests for our family’s history.

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Finding Dionne

Monique, Dionne and daughters, Desiree, Jade, Amber and Devany.  Can you match the children with the correct mother?

Monique, Dionne and daughters, Desiree, Jade, Amber and Devany. Can you match the children with the correct mother?

by guest blogger, Monique Smith Anderson

Early in the summer during the middle of the night, I came across a post that caught my eye on a popular ancestry website, but for some reason it took me three more nights to respond. Once I did, I was thrilled just hours later to find a response from someone who knew details of My Family Tree as their own. As it turns out, that was the day that my new ancestry website contact had returned home from her grandmother’s funeral.

I was overjoyed with our internet communications, with my new found cousin describing in detail, stories of her Dad and Grandfather being raised on the very property I’ve pictured so many times in my head as an old sepia-toned movie. I can still hear the joy in my Father’s voice when he called me after getting his own e-mail from our new cousin which answered questions they’ve both had for many years. We have many more answers to find, but the load is now lighter and merry.

Ironically, my new cousin and I live just forty miles apart, 1500 miles away from the Mississippi town I now call home, but have never been to. Our first face to face meeting brought the peace and comfort that makes families Family. We wept openly possibly for the loss of our lone searches for our ancestors, followed by an afternoon of schoolgirl giggles finding more and more in common. I was tickled pink to share the 150 year old sword and scabbard that belonged to our Great Great Great Grandfather, Colonel W.R. Stuart. I had acquired the item on Ebay of all places, just two months earlier, also from a contact of that famous ancestry website.

My Cousin Dionne, my Dad, & I take searching for our roots very seriously. We all have binders two inches thick and forward each other every bit of information no matter how big or small. We have an unwritten rule of opening what could be “big hits” together, as we did a month ago with a 124-page package from the University of Southern Mississippi Archives. We are thankful for advancements in archival collections and access to public records, but have hit the proverbial wall with finding any information on Josephine Burton. Suddenly it hit us to go full circle and concentrate on word of mouth from elders as it used to be. We are taking big steps to make that happen right now.

We realize that searching can also be half of the thrill as well. When we’re disappointed from hitting another wall, we joke about who is going to play Tempe, The Colonel, and both of us when our journey is made into a movie. Just last week we forwarded each other a video clip on the life of Alex Haley with that haunting tune that none of us can ever forget for inspiration!

It took me writing this right now to realize that all of this research we are compiling is to literally put into the hands of our daughters as we would have wanted passed onto us. They are too young to understand or appreciate now, but I look forward to the day that I can pass on the full story of our roots from royalty in Scotland, slavery in the south, and all the way to Carnegie Hall.

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Welcome to my family!

Grandpa Ford

My earliest memories of my paternal grandfather, Martin Luther Ford, are of him sitting on his porch in the projects in the French Quarters of New Orleans. He was as white as any white man I’d ever seen, but I never questioned why he looked so different from my brothers and sisters and me, all cocoa-colored. My dad, while somewhat darker, more café au lait than his creamy-skinned father, still favored Grandpa Ford so there was no question we were all related. Plus, Grandpa sounded like the rest of our New Orleans aunts, uncles and cousins with that same maple syrup speech that liked to drive you crazy if you were in a hurry.

It wasn’t until I was 12 that Grandpa’s pearl white skin and pin straight black hair sufficiently provoked my interest to ask him about it.

That summer, he visited us for the first time. (I think it was the first time he ever crossed the Mason Dixon line.) Grandpa was in his late 70s by then, legally blind although he insisted he could see, and spent most days at the senior center while my parents were at work. It was up to me to entertain him and make sure he didn’t burn the house down in the two-hour gap between when the senior center bus dropped him at the end of our driveway and my mother came home from work. He mostly listened to baseball on the radio or made small-talk about the weather. As a pre-teen, I wanted nothing to do with adults, let alone a senior one with a drawl and bad hearing, but his complexion and the story that had to come along with it intrigued me as the summer and his visit wore on.

One day he brought me home a hand-painted macaroni necklace from the senior center, slipped it over my head as I gave him a tall glass of iced tea and said, “I made a little somethin’ for ya sugah.” Suddenly, I had the courage to ask him what I’d wondered about all summer long.

“Grandpa, are you white?””

He laughed and said that he wasn’t white but that he used to pretend to be in order to get better paying jobs in then segregated New Orleans. He said his grandfather was a white man, a pecan farmer named Stuart and that his grandmother, Tempe “worked” on his plantation.

That was an interesting way of putting it.

I knew enough about American history to understand that black people in the south at that time weren’t paid workers. They were slaves. Soaring on my new-found courage from my necklace, I asked Grandpa outright, “was your grandmother a slave?” Grandpa looked dreamy. I don’t know if it was the cataracts which turned his eyes a cloudy blue or if he was caught up in his memories, weaving from the gritty cobblestone New Orleans streets where he delivered groceries to the acres of pecan trees that surrounded him in Ocean Springs, Mississippi where he grew up, the same place where his grandfather raised pecans. Whatever the reason, he never answered me directly about Tempe being a slave, but he did tell me other things.

He’d lived on some of Stuart’s property and my dad and his brother’s and sisters had been raised on Stuart property too. The house was big enough that he rented out rooms to other families in order to pay the taxes. Ultimately, the renters didn’t generate enough income and the Stuart house and land was turned over to the state of Mississippi. Grandpa told me that Stuart’s wife could not have children, and that Mrs. Stuart was very religious. Indeed she did donate a lot of money to help build St. Paul’s Methodist church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

I had to find out through Ocean Springs historian, Ray Bellande that Tempe was a slave, given as a wedding gift to Stuart’s wife from her family. After the civil war, Mrs. Stuart freed Tempe and gave her a job as a cook. Tempe stayed on as a cook and loyal companion to Elizabeth Stuart until the woman died in 1925. Tempe died a few months after her long-time proprietor and employer at age 105.

That afternoon in the cool belly of our basement, I stumbled across an unknown and unexplored part of our family history. Our ancestors were both slaves and masters, African and Scottish, maybe even the descendants of the Royal Stuarts, as in Mary Queen of Scots.

But I wouldn’t delve into all the specifics on that humid day in 1983. My nascent journalistic skills didn’t know to ask Grandpa what his mother looked like, if he’d ever met his grandmother Tempe, if she and Stuart had other kids and how he felt about his grandfather also being his grandmother’s master. My interests in my ancestry were as unpredictable and scattered as my teenage hormones. The next time I saw my grandfather, two years later, I cared a lot more about the color of my hair and if a boy would ever like me with those braces on my teeth than anything about my family history. He died a few years later and I presumed the answers to my questions died with him – until the Internet came along. That’s where I connected with my fourth cousin, another Tempe and Stuart descendant. She promises to guest blog soon. How’s the search for your roots coming?

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