Tag Archives: slavery
While at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I’ve had the chance to visit the slave burial grounds at nearby Sweet Briar College. Over the years that I’ve been coming to the VCCA to write, I became aware of the grounds and was happy to learn that they were being preserved. Sweet Briar College was once a plantation and dozens of enslaved people are buried there. Thanks to the work of a team of preservationists headed by Dr. Lynn Rainville, these grounds are safe from disappearing and another descendant is closer to finding their ancestor.
Rainville, a research anthropologist and historian at Sweet Briar College, received a grant earlier this year from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop the African American Family Database. The project is a model for researching African-American families from antebellum to post-bellum times and when completed will help descendants find their enslaved ancestors.
Not only is this newspaper article about my talented great-aunt Tempe Stuart a point of pride for this woman who would go on to make her living teaching and performing music, but it’s also full of information that I didn’t know about my paternal family’s ancestral home, Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I want to thank my friend, Shannon, for bringing the article to my attention.*
The article states that Tempe Stuart’s dad, Alfred was among the wealthiest colored men in the town, supplying its residents with milk. (Not bad for a man born a slave at the end of the Civil War). At also says that this small Gulf Coast town had about 120 “colored” families and over two-thirds of them owned their homes. That number has to break some kind of record for black homeowners in the south during that time, just a little over 30 years after the end of slavery. Oceanspringsarchives.net contends that the number of black residents was even higher than the article suggests with 331 compared with 925 white residents, citing the federal census as the source. So, in 190o, roughly one-quarter of Ocean Springs residents were blacks and 2/3 of those blacks owned their homes. According to US Census data from 2000, Ocean Springs now has a population of about 17,000 people and about 1200 of its residents are black. About 72 percent of all residents own their homes.
I wonder what made Ocean Springs so conducive to property ownership for former slaves and their families?
(*I’ve gotten so used to Shannon forwarding me amazing newspaper articles about my family, that I neglected to thank her in my original post, so the asterisk refers to updated information.)
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…
Google is the gift that keeps on giving.
After finding out that a Dr. Stirling owned some of my great, great-grandmother Tempy’s relatives, I punched his name and a few other facts into the search engine and was thrilled when a collection of papers popped up.
According to the inventory of this special collection at the Louisiana State University, the Lewis Stirling family papers have a plethora of information on the family’s slaves including everything from a register of slaves to itemized lists of clothing and shoes handed out to those in bondage.
This weekend, I spent a day at Princeton University’s Firestone library where a copy of the papers is also stored and after many hours, I had barely scratched the surface of the five microfilm reels archiving this family’s antebellum years. Even though I haven’t gotten to the info I’m looking for, the Stirling papers make for fascinating reading. All of the wills I’ve read so far stipulate that slave families are not to be separated (which makes me wonder why my great, great-grandmother got separated from her mother, siblings and aunt). And in a three page contract with an overseer, one Stirling slave owner goes to pains to explain exactly how slaves should be disciplined (never with more than a dozen stripes and never with the butt end of the whip) and that the owner should be called if the overseer thinks they’ve done something to merit harsher treatment.
Can’t wait to see what other insights the Stirling Family Papers hold.
“I desire to find my people.” That’s how my great, great-grandmother Tempy Burton begins her June 4, 1891 ad in the Southwestern Christian Advocate. Known simply as the Southwestern, this paper was started in 1877 and covered the African Methodist Episcopal community. Like Tempy, I come from the AME tradition. I was baptized in the AME church where my father is now an ordained minister. Also like Tempy, I desire to find my people. That desire led me to my cousin Monique who I met via email a year ago on June 3, just shy of the anniversary of Tempy’s ad. Great minds think alike because initially, Monique thought we should put an ad in an Ocean Springs, Mississippi paper where our people are from with the headline “Looking for the Burtons.” But we figured a blog was cheaper with a farther reach, so Finding Josephine was born. Thanks to the Southwestern and a good Samaritan named Shannon, we all found our people.
The Southwestern ad appeared in a column called “Lost Friends” which helped former slaves find their lost family, separated by slavery. Tempy’s humble, heartfelt petition names her mother, Eliza Burton, her sisters, Nancy, Polly and Liberia Burton, a brother, Albert Burton, and two aunts, Peggie Manrow and Bettie Matthews.
I’ve clung to the hope that I would be able to take my research back another generation and find Tempy’s parents, but I knew the chances were slim. Like Tempy, her parents would inevitably be slaves whose names and places of birth were a mystery to me. If I did find either of them, I figured it would come way down the research road when my kids were older and I could steal a few days to take a genealogy jaunt to North Carolina where Tempy’s owners come from. Even then, they would only turn up after many sweaty afternoons in the bowels of a municipal office, bent over ancient, dusty deed books or wills. (I can hear all you genealogy junkies out there getting excited just at the thought!) But instead, with one email from a woman I’ve never met who loves historic newspapers, impassioned pleas, and combing the AfriGeneas African-American genealogy website, I’ve reclaimed an entire generation of my enslaved ancestors: A third great-grandmother, two third great aunts, three great, great-aunts, and a great, great-uncle. Now, I even know the names of the people who owned this earlier generation of my Burton family. The ad said, “My mother, sister Nancy, Bro. Albert, aunt Bettie, and aunt Peggy lived on the same plantation and belonged to Dr. Sterling’s people. Liberia and Polly belonged to Dr. Robert Hilyard. Liberia was salivated when a child. I left them in Attakapas, La.” (So there is still a dusty records office somewhere in Louisiana in my future where I will be looking for Drs. Sterling and Hilyard and deciphering the meaning of “salivated.”)
I barely dared to believe I’d find Tempy’s parents. But I never imagined I’d read Tempy’s personal thoughts in print. A slave until she was in her 40s, Tempy never learned how to read or write. (A 1900 census states she could do neither). But someone (probably her son, Alfred or daughter Josephine who lived near their mom in Ocean Springs, Mississippi) carefully wrote her petition and sent it to the Southwestern. And Shannon, 120 years later, struck by Tempy’s quest, took a chance, checked out the AfriGeneas message boards to see if anyone today was looking for her the way she looked for her people back then.
And here we are.
The treasure for me is not only that I now know the names of my great, great-grandmother Tempy’s mother, siblings, and aunts but that the kindness of strangers that keeps raining down on me on this journey has helped me make a new friend. She needs her own post, so I’ll tell you about Shannon and how she found Tempy’s ad through the New England Historic Genealogical Society next time. Until then, here’s Tempy’s ad and the follow-up:
Southwestern Christian Advocate – June 4, 1891:
I desire to find my people. Mother’s name was Eliza Burton, sisters, Nancy, Pally, and Liberia Burton. I had a brother Albert Burton who died, and two aunts, Peggie Manrow and Bettie Matthews. My mother, sister Nancy, Bro. Albert, aunt Bettie, and aunt Peggy lived on the same plantation and belonged to Dr. Sterling’s people. Liberia and Polly belonged to Dr. Robert Hilyard. Liberia was salivated when a child. I left them in Attakapas, La. Any information concerning them will be thankfully received. Address Mrs. Tempy Burton, Ocean Springs, Miss., care W.R. Stewart, Esq.
Southwestern Christian Advocate – August 13, 1891:
Dr. A.E.P. Albert:
Dear Brother: The Southwestern has been the means of the recovery of my sister, Mrs. Polly Woodfork and eight children. I owe my joy to God and the SOUTHWESTERN, and wish the editor success in getting 1,000 cash subscribers in the next thirty days. I will do all in my power to get all the subscribers I can. God bless Dr. Albert and crown him with success. Mrs. Tempy Burton
*My new friend’s name is Shannon, not Sharon as I initially wrote. All the euphoria over the find clouded my brain. Sorry Shannon!
In the past year, I’ve often wondered just how big a slave owner was my second great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart and just how much property did he amass. To my mind, the fewer slaves he owned, the easier it might be for me to accept him as just a product of his times when slave-ownership was not extraordinary. But receipts I’ve gathered for thousands of dollars he donated to the Confederates and the above advertisement found this weekend on genealogybank.com by a friend make it crystal clear. He was a serious slave owner with a lot of property. Less a product of his time and more someone who helped shape the times.
This January 1853 ad from the Times Picayune says he owned at least “fifty acclimated Negroes.” I’m afraid to even know what “acclimated” means. I assume it just means the slaves are used to picking cotton in the Baton Rouge heat and humidity. And those one thousand “arpents” the ad mentions equal 850 acres. Arpent is an old French unit of land used in French parts of Canada and the US equal to .85 acres. Between the land he cultivated and the slaves he owned to work his land, Col. W. R. Stuart became a wealthy man.
As Marvin Gaye said, make me wanna holler.
Last night I spent several hours researching in the tall stacks of a nearby college where the vibrant tree above stands at the campus entrance, a festive welcome to the all girls school in rural Virginia. The smell of musty books, thumbed by scores of coeds, faculty and visitors like me over the years, ignited the possibilities I always feel when I’m standing at the beginning of something. Being surrounded by information inspires me.
Like the shocking colors in that tree, the smell of possibility was just the jolt I needed. Lately, as I near the end of this first draft of my novel and wade deeper into my search for my family’s history I’ve hit some roadblocks with both and I’ve felt my excitement wane. For the past week of my writing fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I’ve been counting the pages I write, reprimanding myself for not producing more. My kids are missing me and my husband has rearranged his schedule while I’m gone. The least I could do is return with a finished manuscript. For the past month of researching my family history, I’ve felt the pressure of similar unreasonable demands to make some important discovery about the people I came from, especially my great grandmother, Josephine.
It’s still a mystery whether or not she was the daughter (like my grandfather told me) or, if as her age suggests, the granddaughter of Col. W.R. Stuart and Temple Burton. I have yet to find any death certificate to pinpoint where and when she died. The only frame I have for her life is a 1920 census that puts her at age 45 and my father’s account that she was dead by the time he was born in 1934. These two bits of information are the bookends for the life of a woman who didn’t live to see her sixtieth birthday. Maybe she didn’t even live to see 50. Having grown up with both my grandparents and great grandparents, I can’t help but feel like my father and his siblings missed out on something precious.
The precious stuff is not so much in the beginnings and endings of people’s lives or the stories we read about them, real or imagined, but in what happens in between. When I got an excited text message from my fourth cousin two days ago that said, “Found Josephine,” it reminded me of how thrilled I was when she first found me and our subsequent visits together pouring over her big binders full of information on our family. Turned out she had found some other Josephine, but I was more buoyed by her tireless enthusiasm toward our search and the opportunity it allows us to get to know each other better than I was disappointed that the information didn’t pan out.
After a full day of writing yesterday (I did not finish my novel but I at least came closer to knowing how to), I took a jog along the Sweet Briar campus, Michael Jackson on my ipod propelling me along when I saw that tree. I ran by it twice before I doubled (or tripled) back, realizing fall colors are brief and tenuous. If a strong wind kicked up that evening, those leaves could all be blown to the ground by the next time I rode or jogged by. So, I stopped running, just stared at it for a while and let a wave of contentment wash over me. I had the privilege to write uninterrupted by the demands of real life at an artist’s colony, a husband who encourages me to do so, gladly taking over the fulltime care of our daughters and home while I’m here and in my cousin, Monique, a kindred spirit and research buddy. With the sun disappearing beyond the Blue Ridge mountains, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. In both my novel and my family research, I was beyond the frenetic excitement of the beginning but had not yet reached the relieved exhilaration of the end. I was in the middle where the precious stuff, the joy of the journey resides.
Do you find the middle of a project as challenging as I do? How do you stay connected to the joy of the journey?
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.
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.